An Herbal Renaissance: Six Hawaiian Herbs

By Staff

(Piper methysticum)
This plant grows in moist, shady places in the tropics and has been under cultivation for so long that it can no longer reproduce itself in the wild. Today kava-kava–or simply kava–is consumed as a beverage in Fiji and Tonga, but in Hawaii it’s used primarily as a ceremonial drink or for medicinal purposes. Healers pound the roots in a pot with a heavy pole, then soak the crushed parts in water to extract the active ingredients, most of which are ­mildly sedating lactones, which leave the drinker with a sense of euphoria and well-being. Kavalactones have a pain-relieving quality as well, which is why Hawaiian herbal healers recommend kava to treat headaches and back pain, often in combination with ginger, which they believe ­enhances kava’s action. Healers also ­recommend kava to highly stressed individuals, with the hope that it will help them avoid heart problems.

Traditional Hawaiian healers don’t seem to be impressed with modern preparations of powdered kava in capsules. ­According to Papa Ka’alakea, one of the ­elders on the island of Maui, ingesting the nonextracted, powdered root brings about no change in one’s mood. “I take. Feel like yesterday,” he says. Conversely, the effects of a strong extract of ‘awa root are unmistakable. Shortly after ingesting the peppery-tasting brew, the drinker experiences a tranquil, contented feeling. Taken in large doses, kava may cause some loss of muscle control along with euphoria, but the mind remains clear. This makes it especially suitable as a ceremonial beverage, allowing participants to let go of anxieties and animosities without creating the loss of self-control that often accompanies alcohol consumption.

‘Olena–Turmeric (Curcuma longa; C. domestica)
Another important plant in Hawaiian herbal medicine, ‘olena, or turmeric rhizome, is widely used throughout Asia as an anti-inflammatory medicine. It’s what gives curries their yellow color. In fact, ‘olena means “yellow” in the Hawaiian language, and it was often used as a dye for tapa, or cloth.

Healers use turmeric externally as a wash for skin sores and rashes, the same way it is used in the Ayurvedic medicine of India. A unique function of turmeric in Hawaiian medicine is its use as a treatment for sinus infections and congestion. Healers squeeze a small amount of juice from a freshly grated root and advise their patients to sniff a few drops up into the nasal passages. This can be quite uncomfortable, so don’t try it on your own. But in Hawaii, there are claims of incredible cures of long-term sinusitis after this treatment. Healers also mix turmeric juice with honey and with herbs to treat sore throats and coughs. Papa Kalua Kaiahua, one of the elders currently practicing Hawaiian herbal medicine and a former ocean diver, describes his experience with ‘olena: “When I was a hard-hat construction diver, I had a broken eardrum four different times. Each time I cured the problem by putting the juice of ‘olena and ginger into my ear.”

Hawaiians believe that ‘olena is one of the two dozen or so “canoe plants,” so-called because the original Polynesian settlers carried these herbs in their canoes when they came to the Hawaiian islands in the sixth century.

(Morinda citrifolia)
Another canoe plant, noni is one of the most highly regarded of the traditional Hawaiian medicinal herbs. Also known as Indian Mulberry, this attractive tree grows between ten and twenty feet tall. The dark green, shiny leaves are deeply veined and used externally to treat tumors or skin infections. Healers soften the leaf over an open flame, let it cool, then apply it to the affected area.

Although the noni leaf is an important medicine, the noni fruit is legendary among Hawaiian healers. Equally legendary is its distinctive cheese-like aroma and flavor, which many people find repulsive. For this reason, different elders have their own ways of making noni juice more palatable, such as mixing it with orange juice and ginger. All agree, however, that it is highly effective in treating serious ailments such as diabetes, high blood ­pressure, and heart disease, which tend to affect indigenous peoples who have switched from traditional foods to a conventional American diet. The pulp of the green fruit is also used topically to dispel head lice (uku) and fleas. In research conducted in Hawaii and Japan, extracts of noni have been shown to stimulate the immune system and suppress the growth of cancer cells, although these findings are being debated.

Chinese laborers who came to the islands during the 1800s taught Hawaiians what has evolved into a popular method of preserving noni juice. The ripe fruit is collected, placed in a closed jar, and left sitting in the sun for a few weeks. The potent, fermented dark liquid that collects in the bottom of the jar is then strained and stored in the refrigerator for future use.

Kukui–Candlenut tree
(Aleurites moluccana)
Kukui is an attractive broadleaf tree with light green leaves that commonly grows on hillsides in Hawaii at lower elevations. It is also called candlenut tree because Hawaiians once used oil from its nuts as fuel for lighting. They removed the shells, then pierced the nuts and strung them on the stem of a coconut frond. They lit the top nut, and the flame worked its way down the stem from one nut to the next, acting as a candle. Medicinally, kukui is used as an important purgative for the treatment of constipation or as part of a cleansing regimen. Healers cook a single nut in an oven or over an open flame until the shell cracks, releasing the oil (the oil holds the medicine, but the roasted nut meats have a pleasant taste and are good to eat). To treat sores or infections in the mouth and to soothe the gums of teething babies, healers pick green kukui nuts in the morning when the sap is running. They separate the stem from the husk of the nut, and a small pool of sap fills the resulting hole. They apply the sap topically on sores or mix it with water to make a mouthwash.

Uhaloa–no English translation
(Waltheria americana)
Uhaloa is a common grayish-green shrub that grows at lower elevations in the dry areas of the Hawaiian islands. It was most likely already growing on the islands when the first Polynesians arrived, and it is also found in many other parts of the world. Although it is frequently used to treat asthma and painful coughs, only the Hawaiians are known to use it for sore throats. Sufferers chew the root bark and gargle the juice. According to Papa Ka’alakea, uhaloa is also a very effective treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes. The remedy is made by pounding a bundle of the root bark, stems, and leaves with a little lemongrass and ginger for flavoring, then brewing the material into a strong decoction that is consumed over five days. Because uhaloa is such an abundant plant, Papa recommends harvesting a bush that is growing by itself to avoid making the other plants jealous: “Eh, why you pick him, not us?”

‘Awapuhi–Wild ginger
(Zingiber zerumbet)
Also known as wild ginger or shampoo ginger, ‘awapuhi was carried to Hawaii by the ancient Polynesian settlers. It now grows commonly in the moist, shady areas of the islands, often carpeting the floor of the rain forests. The herb’s large, cone-like bracts contain an aromatic juice that can be squeezed out and applied to the hair as a shampoo, and it is now used ­commercially for this purpose. Traditional healers pound the rhizomes to extract the juice, which they use to treat stomachaches and ulcers. Hawaiians also use the sliced rhizomes as a flavoring in cooking in the same way many of us use ­commercial ginger. When given a choice, however, Hawaiians prefer the cultivated ginger, which they call ‘awapuhi-pake (Chinese ginger), to its wild cousin. They add either form of ginger to other medicines as a flavoring or to enhance another herb’s action. For example, it is added to noni juice to help disguise the bad taste, and to kava root to make it more effective in treating back pain.

Click here for the original article, An Herbal Renaissance: Hawaiian style.

Bill Schoenbart is the author of Pocket Guide to Chinese Patent Medicines (The Crossing Press, 1999) and a faculty member of both the Hawaii College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Maui and the American School of Botanical Medicine in Santa Cruz, California. He currently is manager of botanical development for the Perrigo Company in Greenville, South Carolina.

David “Kawika” Ka’alakea, also known as “Papa,” died on December 9, 1998, the day after his 79th birthday. “Ho’omau ka la’au lapa’au (con­tinue the teaching and practice of herbal medicine)” he told his friends and ­family, “it is now in your hands.”

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