Down to Earth: Native Plants, Native Medicine

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Ever since I was in fourth grade and read a National Geographic article about New Guinea, I have wanted to visit that area. I have always been fascinated by primitive cultures, by people who rely completely on the plants they grow or find in the wild.

It was a fortuitous meeting for me when I was introduced to Kelly Wolford, a man who grew up in Missouri as I had, but who now lived in Bali, one of 8,000 islands that make up Indonesia. He travels back and forth from Bali to West Papua (the western half of the island of New Guinea that belongs to Indonesia). He works as a guide for small groups of Europeans and Westerners, taking up to six people at a time into the jungles of West Papua. The groups he takes are generally botanists, entomologists, or anthropologists. Kelly is very protective of the Papuan people and I appreciated that enough to sign on with him for a personal trip across that pristine land.

We flew into the central part of West Papua in early morning, arriving by small, old cargo plane, dodging between mountains and flying down stunningly beautiful valleys.

As soon as we had stored our supplies and hired porters to carry our small amount of gear, we headed eastward along a small path that led up onto the side of a small mountain. We walked for hours, along crystal clear mountain streams, through valleys lined with coffee bushes growing beneath star fruit and cashew nut trees. Shallow water in ditches was covered with the tiniest water lilies I had ever seen. The leaves were the size of a dime, and the flowers, which stood above the leaves like any other water lily, were pale yellow or pink and about the size of a nickel. In damp areas, large patches of red hibiscus plants grew. We stopped and chewed a few of the leaves for their thirst quenching power (just as we use sorrel here in the United States).

Each night we camped near a Papuan village and cooked our meals over an open fire. Around the fire, Kelly would interpret for me so that conversation continued between the Papuans and me. They wanted to know about my life and I was interested in their views of the world.

One afternoon we arrived at a very remote village, deep in the jungle and were greeted with a mock battle. Papuan men, by tradition, wear only a penis gourd for clothing, and feathers and fur on their head. So it was a surprise for me when we rounded a bend in the path and were greeted with twenty fierce-looking men holding spears and bows and arrows. Evidently they knew we were coming and had prepared a dramatic welcome for us. These mock battles for occasional visitors are how the older men teach the teenagers about battle and about the customs of the village. The battle lasted for about twenty minutes with lots of arrow shooting and spear throwing—all for practice, of course. No one was injured. Afterward, there was a feast of roasted pig and sweet potatoes, cooked in an open pit.

As we walked on our journey each day, one of the porters, named Philipus, pointed out medicinal plants to me. In one village he showed me a first aid tree which only required that you mash up some of its leaves and apply them as a poultice to cuts and abrasions. One child who was listening eagerly showed me the bandaged cut on his knee with the plant’s leaves inside and how well his wound was healing.

Several times Philipus showed me kalanchoe plants growing atop the fences along our trails. I recognized the kalanchoe as the same one we had at home, growing in pots in winter. “It’s for headache,” he explained, and showed me how it was bruised and applied to the head.

One day as we were walking, Philipus seemed quiet and I inquired what was bothering him. “Headache,” he said.

I grinned and pointed at the kalanchoe and offered to pick him some leaves, showing him that I had been listening to his lessons. A bit sheepishly he said, “No thanks, but do you have some aspirin?” It seems that no matter what amazing plants you have in your own area, something else from far away, something that seems exotic, is always the medicine of choice. I did have aspirin in my backpack and shared them. It seemed a fair trade for all that I had learned from him about native Papuan medicines in my week of trekking across West Papua.


Jim Long is the author of sixteen books on herbs and historical subjects.