Perhaps no other plant is more closely associated with Babalú-Ayé than cundeamor. Not only do many people cover his vessel with this herb, some houses wrap cundeamor around the horns of the goats they offer to Babalú. In fact, as part of the awán, everyone present must place a strand of this climbing vine around their neck. At the end of the ceremony, these necklaces are cast off and into the basket.
Cundeamor grows aggressively at the end of the rainy season, fruits near Babalú’s feast day on December 17th, and then dries up and disappears completely. The fruits have a distinctive brilliant yellow-orange color and bright red seeds. Cundeamor acts just like the deity: emerging at the beginning of the dry season, he grows toward his feast only to disappear again.
Not only does its growing habit mimic Babalú, both the leaves and fruits of the cundeamor have a long and well-documented history as a medicinal herb. In Cuba, both Momordica charantia and Momordica balsamica are called cundeamor. It was traditionally used as a salve for wounds and a cure for gastritis, colitis, and other digestive disorders. However, it was also used to remedy eczema, herpes, and even leprosy. Indigenous knowledge systems in Asia and other parts of Latin America suggest that it is useful for fighting malaria and diabetes. In fact, recent research has shown that it has strong antibacterial and antiviral properties, and there are currently clinical trials testing its effectiveness against HIV. Similarly, some evidence points to cundeamor as a strong regulator of the immune system, and there are researchers looking at it as an aid to cancer patients.
Given Babalú’s long association with skin disorders and infectious diseases, it is no wonder that an herbal remedy for these ills would be used again and again in his rituals.