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An Herbal Renaissance: Six Hawaiian Herbs

These Hawaiian-Native provide traditional medicinal care

| March/April 1999

(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.

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