Lichen collected from Edgar Evins State Park, Middle Tennessee. Lichens were collected for lipid profiling at MTSU. Photo: Chimen Mayi
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – As a child in Kurdistan, Chimen Mayi remembers how her family depended on plants, vegetables, and fruit for not just food, but for their essential healing benefits as well. Having fled Kurdistan and moved to the United States as a refugee with her family, Mayi now uses that knowledge of plants to keep her connected with her Kurdish culture.
Living in Nashville, Tennessee, Mayi preserves her heritage through ethnobotany, “a botanical science, but it’s also a study of culture and people.”
“It’s not just medicine that we think about when we study food sustainability and food habits of cultures, we actually look at the multiple uses that a single plant can offer a family or a community,” she said.
Born in Zakho near the Turkish border in 1979 and living in a small farming community on the outskirts of town, Mayi attributes her love of gardening and early knowledge of the importance of plants to her grandfather.
“We used a lot of plants for a lot of different things,” she said. “I remember that everything had multiple purposes and many roles to play.”
The reddish, hairy fruit of the sumac tree is commonly dried and used as a spice in the Mediterranean region, but it also has medicinal properties.
“Sometimes in the Kurdish culture, if someone becomes sick a juice will be made out of sumac berries mixed with onion for the sick person to drink,” she explained. “It provides them with Vitamin C and it also has astringent properties to stop the growth of germs.”
Onions are another delicious part of Kurdish cuisine that also feature in traditional medicine as immune boosters.
“Whenever Kurdish people get a cold or flu or abdominal issues or actually any bacterial related problems, onion is usually the go-to medicine” she said. “Scientific research shows that onions have properties to boost the immune system.”
Garlic offers immune boosting phytochemicals and has anti-tumor capabilities.
“We use garlic for colds, for sores or minor skin injuries, for abdominal pain, even in relation to cancer being anti-cancerous and to illicit immune responses in the human body,” she said. “I’ve also heard that if a person has scars or warts, garlic will burn the scars or the warts away.”
“Garlic is pretty profound and strong in terms of it being a medicinal plant.”
Grape vines are another important plant in the Kurdistan Region, at all stages of the plant’s life, Mayi explained. It offers medicine from the days when it first produces young shoots that parents give to children for abdominal pain or parasites.
The leaves are used to make a traditional Kurdish dish called dolma, in which they are stuffed with seasoned rice and meat. Once the leaves are too hard for dolma, the vines bear grapes which can be eaten sour or when ripe, as well as turned into raisins.
The vines themselves are also useful to provide shelter and shade. “It was especially important in summer to provide shade during the day and shelter for Kurdish villagers who would often sleep outside at night,” Mayi added.
Another plant, mallow, called dolik in Kurdish, is used for abdominal pain, yeast overgrowth, and to relieve the body of parasites. It’s one of the go-to medicines in Kurdish culture, Mayi said.
“It also makes delicious food. In some Kurdish families, I have actually seen some mothers stuff the leaves of mallow with rice and meat for dolma because it gets almost as big as the leaves of grapes. It also makes beautiful flowers,” she said.
In the United States, absinthe is known as a liquor, but for Kurds, “it is a cure-all for literally everything.”
“It was drunk like a tea. In the morning, a lot of Kurdish couples would wake up and the first thing they would do is to make their tea with this herb and drink it.”
Leaf celery is an important part of the Kurdish diet and finding containers of it on porches of Kurdish homes in Nashville is not out of the ordinary. Photo: Chimen Mayi
In Nashville, Mayi works with an organization that adopts gardens, enriching the soil with coffee grounds and compostable material. She is responsible for tending the gardens as well as educating the owners on how to care for their gardens.
After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in international relations 12 years ago, Mayi is now just one class away from graduating with her second Bachelor’s degree, this one in biology.
She plans to continue with post-graduate studies focusing on secondary metabolic compounds of plants. This, she explained, is “what helps plants communicate with one another or support themselves, but when used by people, it becomes medicinal in nature and in some cases even poisonous.”
“I have a scientific aim to be an academic and to teach the Kurdish culture as a way of bridging that gap between different communities that may exist in Nashville,” she said.
She already sees many similarities between Kurdish uses of plants and Native Americans’. “It’s just so wonderful to bring two cultures as diverse and as far away physically as Native America and Kurdistan and say these two people, living so far from each other came to the same conclusions about the same plants.”