My interest was piqued one day at the tianguis (flea market) in Valle de Santiago when the elderly woman wrapped in her dark blue rebozo against the cold that sold us the plant (for 10 pesos). She mentioned that this plant, which I knew as Wandering Jew, was called “Sin Verguenza” (Without shame) because it propagates without any special care whatsoever. She then said that it was good for treating diarrhea. I had not heard anything ever before about medicinal uses of Tradescantia zebrina, so when I began my Herbal Materia Medica course through Herbal Academy, I added it to the list of herbs I wanted to investigate more thoroughly.
Before I had even begun my investigation, my husband plucked and ate a leaf as a cure for his upset stomach one day. As he didn’t die, and in fact, felt much better, I thought there might be something to this old wives’ tale.
I found out that Tradescantia zebrina was native to Mexico. However, I didn’t find anything in English about its medicinal use except a vague reference to a tea made from its leaves called Matali. So that’s what I searched for. Bingo! Youtube video and everything! Matali is a tea common in Tabasco used for treatment for urinary infections and kidney issues.
The preparation in the video was far from exact, so I tried digging deeper. One recipe for a kidney cleanse instructed boiling the leaves in water and allowing it to cool. Add lemon juice and honey.
There was no mention on how many leaves or how long to boil the concoction.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one looking for this recipe. Yahoo respuestas led me to yet another recipe. There I was told that there is no exact number of leaves used in making the tea. Boil some, taste, and if it seems weak, add some more leaves. If it is too strong, add more water to dilute the tea. Okie Dokie.
There was a separate recipe for dysentery treatment. An unspecified number of leaves should be crushed with a bit of water. The mixture should then be strained. Mountain honey (the best I could figure miel de monte translates as) and lemon juice are added. This tea should be drunk 3 times a day for the duration of the illness.
Much to my surprise, I found the Chinese Traditional Medicine also listed a tea made from the Wandering Jew for stomach ailments. In Chinese, this plant is called Shui Gui Cao (Water Turtle Grass) and is recommended for kidney issues. Here I found some harvesting advice (don’t touch the sap because it might cause skin irritation) and a description of what the tea tastes like “slightly tasteless with a light herbal aroma having a purple/pink color after being boiled for a few hours.”
A few HOURS? Well, that’s still not specific enough. So I kept searching.
Finally, I found a site that gave a more precise recipe. Use 200 g each time. Soak 15 pieces of red dates in a container. Wash the Shui Gui Cao 3 times. Boil 1.5 liters of water. Add the Shui Gui Cao, red dates and 12 slices of ginger. Cook on low heat for 1.5 hours. Add brown sugar for sweetness. It can be reheated for maximum benefits. Drink 2 to 3 hours after eating or on an empty stomach for best results.
There were quite a few things this tea was accredited to cure including bladder problems, piles, uric acid, blood in the stool, pulmonary tuberculosis, cough, kidney infection, poisonous snake bite, vaginal discharge, urinary infection, hemoptysis, nephritis dropsy, acute conjunctivitis, swollen larynx, even diabetes.
The diabetes cure had a recipe too. Make a cup of tea using 3 leaves. Drink 3 cups per day. If making the tea is too bothersome, you can just eat one leaf 3 times per day.
I wasn’t the only person to look deeper into medicinal use of the Wandering Jew plant. One study showed that a methanolic leaf extract from the Tradescantia zebrina plant had the highest antioxidant content of the plants studied. Antioxidants are good. Dr. Jim Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database cited a 1969 study by Maximino Martinez listing this plant as a treatment for dysentery.
Well, with this information, it was time to make matali myself. I boiled a handful of leaves for 2 hours as instructed and got weak tea colored water. It wasn’t pink. And it tasted like, well, boiled water. So maybe I didn’t put enough leaves in it. I thought I’d try just making a cup with 3 leaves.
I choose leaves with the purplest underside, boiled the water and added the leaves. AND….the water turned out exactly the same color. I sampled it, and it was tasteless, although I did notice my tongue had a thin coating of blah afterward, so much so that I went and brushed my teeth and tongue to get rid of the feeling.
Update May 2020
I had so many comments about matalí tea that I thought I’d try making it a second time, to see if I could get the pink color. This time, I cut the leaves lengthwise and instead of boiling them, I allowed them to steep in boiling water.
To my disappointment, no matter how long I allowed them to steep, the water remained decidedly not pink. However, the tea tasted much better. It had a plant flavor rather than the BLAH that resulted from boiling the leaves.
Some interesting tidbits shared by readers include:
According to Thomas Ngumi, in Kenya the leaves are used as vegetables among the Kamba community.
David de la Rosa’s brother in Guatemala makes matalí tea using 7 leaves in 0.75 liters of water, boiling for about 3-5 minutes. David claims that drinking the tea every other day has reduced his brother’s prostate and improved his urination, as well as reducing his PSA levels.
Wes Lowrence told me that the tea is brown until he adds lemon juice to lower the pH level, then it turns a brighter color.
Another commenter suggested cutting the leaves to release the inside portions, then pour the boiling water over it, which is what I attempted this time. He also suggested that I wait until it cools for the pink/purple color. Chilling it overnight before straining will intensify the color.
One reader shared that her Chinese grandmother boiled the leaves in water along with their flowers. There was no specific amount of water, leaves or boiling time. She used this concoction to reduce the “heat” in the body as defined by traditional Chinese medicine.
Another interesting bit of information that Shannon shared with me is that the Mexican president
Andrés Manuel López Obrador had a dinner engagement with all the country’s governors in January 2020. The beverage served reportedly was matalí. The article included a picture and sure enough, each attendee had a glass of extremely pink drink.
Mystery solved! The variety needed to get the pink color is indeed different. However, the medicinal properties are very similar. We continue to use Tradescantia zebrina as a home remedy for acid reflux and heartburn here. Instead of bothering with the tea, we just eat a leaf or two and experience nearly immediate relief.