Hawaiian Herbs

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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.”

5 Hawaiian Medicinal Plants

Throughout the history, native Hawaiian healers have conventionally used the medicinal herbs for many healing purposes. The application of herbs differed according to the tribes using them. Over time, these herbs were recognized for many other benefits beyond their medicinal properties. Today, they are preferred for improve dietary health and promoting a healthier lifestyle. Here are given five prized herbs used by Hawaiian healers that you must know about:

1. Kava – Piper Methysticum:

Also known as Kava-Kava or awa, is consumed traditionally as a beverage that causes a slight loss of muscle control with euphoric feel. However, the mind remains clear and the drinkers do not lose self-control. Also, they have pain-relieving properties that can reduce headaches and back pains. Traditionally, Kava was consumed as a ceremonial beverage or a medicinal potion in Hawaii. The modern preparations of this herb include powdered Kava available in the form of capsules. For making tea, the Kava roots are pounded in a pot and the crushed parts are soaked in water for making this drink. The active ingredients are then extracted and enjoyed warm or cooled after straining. They include lactones that are mildly psychoactive. There are many strains of kava found in Hawaii that were brought to this region by the Polynesian sailors. The most popular ones are Purple moi, Hiwa, Mahakea, and Nene varieties. this plant is mostly found in shady places in the tropics. Learn more or Buy Hawaiian Kava Extract, Powder, Brew and Chew or Capsules.

2. Mamaki – Pipturus Albidus:

Hawaiians mainly use Mamaki for making a tea. Its leaves are harvested and dried to be brewed. It bears good flavor when mixed with honey and has strong medicinal properties. It can be brewed with lemon grass, honey, or lemon to add some flavor. This herb helps in relieving cough and sore throat when consumed as tea. The ripe fruits of this plant can cure thrush. The traditional practitioners of Hawaiian medicine use different type of leaves for diverse medicinal effects. This is an endemic species also called as Mamake or Waimea. It belongs to the nettle family but the Hawaiian varieties have shed their ability to sting over time. This plant grows as a shrub with a height up to 18 feet. It is native to almost every Hawaiian island except Niihau and Kahoolawe. It is commonly found in wet and seasonally wet forests. Learn more or Buy Mamaki Tea.

3. Noni – Morinda Citrifolia:

The traditional healers soften these leaves and on cooling, apply it to the affected areas of skin. The fruit or Noni berry is legendary and well-renowned for its distinctive cheese-like flavor. When mixed with ginger or orange juice, it can be very effective in curing severe ailments like high blood pressure, heart diseases, and diabetes. Noni has a strong and pungent rotting-like smell. It has been conventionally used as a famine food and a healthy concoction for curing gastrointestinal diseases as well. This canoe plant is also known as Indian Mulberry, Cheese Fruit, or Beach Mulberry. It is a traditional Hawaiian medicinal herb that grows from 10-20 feet. It has shiny dark green leaves that are deeply veined and used for topical treatments in skin infections and tumors. Learn more or Buy Noni Juice, Tea, Capsules or body oil.

4. Turmeric – ‘Olena:

Also called as Curcuma Longa, this is an amazing herbal medicine known for its strong anti-inflammatory properties. The traditional Hawaiian healers used turmeric topically for skin rashes and sores. When mixed with honey and herbs, it can also help in curing cough and sore throat. It is believed that original Polynesian settlers brought this herb to Hawaii when they arrived here in the sixth century. Since it was carried in their canoes, it is one among the canoe plant. In Hawaiian language, ‘Olena means yellow. It was also traditionally used as a dye for clothes. It is closely related to the ginger family and similarly has a thick rootstock or rhizome that is used for making juice or powdered medicine. Turmeric is effective for inflammation and sinus problems. Some The patients are required to sniff a few droplets of freshly extracted juice into the nasal passages for curing sinus infection. Learn more or Buy Turmeric Extract or Capsules

5. Kukui – Aleurites Moluccana:

Kukui was brought by Polynesian sailors on their canoes when they arrived Hawaiian Islands. Since then, this wonderful herb is used for many medicinal purposes in this region.

Today the Kukui nut is most commonly used for its many amazing medicinal properties that benefit the skin. Traditionally, healers picked green nuts, separate the stem from its husk, and gather the sap collected in a small hole resulting from this process. This sap was topically applied on the sores or mixed with water for curing sores inside the mouth as a mouthwash. This attractive plant, also known as the Candlenut tree, is commonly grown in the lower elevation of hillsides in Hawaii. The oil extracted from its white kernels was used by Hawaiians as a fuel for lighting the flames. Hence, it got the name of candlenut tree. The shells were removed and nuts were pierced for making the lights. They were hung from the stem of coconut frond and the top nut was lit to ignite the flame that ran from top to bottom like a candle. Learn more or Buy Kukui Nut Oil.

Hawai‘i is viewed throughout the world as a place of rest and rejuvenation, a concept that is deeply rooted in and supported by the healing environment of our islands. Ancestral wellness wisdom is the basis of the natural health movement here, which has gained mainstream status as more people adopt principles and practices of indigenous healing arts.

Traditional Hawaiian healing arts such as ‘ai pono (healthy eating), ho‘oponopono (emotional/spiritual balance), lomilomi (massage therapy), and la‘au lapa‘au (medicinal plant treatment) are recognized as a viable alternative to conventional medical measures.

La‘au Lapa‘au: Traditional Preparation and Application

Traditional la‘au lapa‘au requires a holistic approach of body, mind, and spirit for optimal healing results. According to renowned traditional healer “Papa” Henry Auwae, “La‘au lapa‘au is solving the problems of body, mind and spirit. In Hawaiian healing the mental is not separate from the spiritual and physical. Rely on spiritual insight and most of all, guidance from akua [God].”

The plants listed below, along with their traditional preparation and application, have been utilized in la‘au lapa‘au for generations:

‘Awa (Piper methysticum)

Black ‘awa is the more potent type of ‘awa. photo by Marcia Timboy

The low-lying ‘awa is found in or just below the borders of the lower forest zone in moist and shady areas on all the main Hawaiian islands.

‘Awa extract, also known as kava, is often mixed with various other substances for healing purposes. Prepared ‘awa is used to treat insomnia, kidney disorders, chills, latent childhood disease, headaches, and tiredness. The ashes from burned ‘awa leaves are rubbed on lesions caused by thrush for children. The beverage made from the root extract is used to relieve congestion in the respiratory tract, cure difficulty in urinating, and regulate menstrual cycles.

‘Awapuhi Kuahiwi—Ginger (Zingiber zerumbet)

The ginger plant is commonly found in mesic (humid), shaded forests on the main Hawaiian Islands.

Said to have anti-inflammatory properties, ‘awapuhi kuahiwi–also known as shampoo ginger—is used as a compress for sores, cuts and bruises; it is also used to treat toothache, achy joints, sprains, stomachache, headaches, ringworm, and other skin diseases. The rhizomes are pounded together with pa‘akai (Hawaiian sea salt), placed on a young frond, squeezed, and the liquid ingested. The pulverized residue can be applied as a compress to treat headaches.

Hala (Pandanus tectorius)

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The pandanus tree grows in coastal areas. Hua (keys) or fruit are used for lei, and when dried, as brushes to apply dyes. The lauhala (leaves) are woven into mats, sails, containers, hats, and are also used as thatching material. Uleule hala is woven into cordage. Hala hinano (flower) is used to scent kapa cloth and placed between mats for sleeping. Lei hala are given to signify new beginnings as well as moments of completion such as funerals, birthdays, and graduations.

Hala blossoms can be a mild laxative. The fruit is part of a treatment for thrush and latent childhood diseases. The root is a good source of vitamins B and C. Medications for skin disorders use the aerial root in combination with other plant materials including niu (coconut); kukui (Aleurites moluccana) flowers; noni (Morinda citrifolia); ko (sugarcane); and hala leaf buds. The hala leaf buds and aerial roots are combined with other plant materials and ‘alae (red dirt) clay for aid in childbirth. A concoction of the aerial root is drunk for chest pains.

Kī (Cordyline fruticosa)

Kī or ti, has a variety of purposes. The leaves are used for thatching, clothing, lei making, and in food preparation. Kī plays an important part of religious ceremonies, and is considered a sacred plant.

In psychological and spiritual healing, kī has a significant role as the leaves are believed to have potent protective metaphysical properties. The kī flowers and leaf buds are mixed with other la‘au to treat shortness of breath and asthma.

Kō—Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum)

The juice of certain varieties of kō is used as a love potion, while other varieties act to block that love spell. The leaf blades are utilized for house thatching.

The sweet stalk was chewed to strengthen and clean teeth and gums. Kō juice was mixed with medicine to make it more palatable. Young leaf buds mixed with kowali pehu (Ipomoea alba), the tropical white morning glory, and salt are used for treating deep cuts, wounds and compound fractures.

Kukui—Candlenut, Indian Walnut, or Varnish Tree (Aleurites molucana)

Found naturally on the main Hawaiian islands in mesic forests from sea level to elevations of 2000 feet, kukui nuts are used for a variety of purposes. They can be strung on a palm rib and burned as a candle. The nuts, leaves, and flowers are used in lei making. The nut oil is utilized as a varnish. ‘Inamona is a relish made from the roasted nuts. The resin and sap can be used as adhesive.

Kukui flowers, nuts, bark and leaves are used as a laxative or in higher doses, as a cathartic or purge. The fresh leaves are useful as poultices. Pounded roasted nuts are the base for a curative salve to treat sores and external ulcers. For recovery after illness, nutmeats are ground with cooked kalo (taro, Latin name Cococasia esculenta) and kikawaioa (fern, Latin name Christella cyathenoides), and eaten with fish and ‘uala (sweet potato).

Māmaki (Pipterus albidus)

Found on all the Hawaiian islands except Kaho‘olawe and Ni‘ihau, in coastal mesic, mixed mesic, and wet forests. Māmaki bark is useful in making a coarse type of kapa (cloth). The long bark fibers are used for rope and cordage.

Māmaki fruit is used to treat thrush and latent childhood disease. The fresh leaves are used to make an herbal tea to treat general debility.

Ripe noni fruit has a multitude of medicinal uses, and is either injested or applied topically. photo by Marcia Timboy

Noni—Indian Mulberry, Great Morinda, Cheese Fruit (Morinda citrifolia)

This small tree is cultivated and naturalized in dry to mesic sites, disturbed hala forests, alien grasslands, and sandy beaches.

Mashed, ripe fruit with the seeds removed is used as a poultice to apply to boils, or added to various formulations to treat constipation. The wilted leaves can be applied to cysts or growths on the skin. Made into a salve, the mashed fruit is useful in getting rid of uku (head lice). Noni is also used in treating kidney stones, high blood pressure, diabetes, and bowel problems. The stem bark is used for cuts. Root sap can be applied to boils and other skin infections. Concussions are treated with the mashed green fruit, and when mixed with salt it can be used as a topical medication. The fresh or dried leaves are brewed into a tea and used as a tonic for a variety of illnesses.

‘Ōlena—Tumeric, Indian Saffron (Curcuma longa)

This low-lying plant is found on all the main Hawaiian islands except Kaho‘olawe. When pulverized, ‘ōlena is used as a dye, and to color and flavor food.

‘Ōlena is a mild astringent, anti-inflammatory, and the juice can be introduced into the ear briefly as a cure for earache or into the nasal passage for abnormal nose conditions.

‘Ōlena (tumeric) is a well-known anti-inflammatory herb amongst many indigenous cultures. photo by Marcia Timboy

‘Uhaloa (Waltheria indica)

This small, shrubby plant can be found in dry, disturbed or well-drained, moist habitats between 0–1,300 feet in elevation on the main Hawaiian islands.

‘Uhaloa is used to treat sore throat. The bark is removed and chewed several times a day. The bark from the taproot is mixed with several other ingredients, heated, cooled, and drunk daily for five days for asthma. The flowers are considered good medicine for infants at least 10 days old.

Rooted in Tradition, Integrated in the Present

In a recent talk story session, Kumu Dane Kaohelani Silva, a la‘au lapa‘au practitioner and kumu lomi, graciously shared his knowledge of Hawaiian medicinal plants and their healing properties. He also discussed integrated healthcare, and his integrative approach to the management of chronic inflammatory symptoms.

Kumu Dane Kaohelani Silva. photo courtesy of Hale Ola

Kumu Dane stated that his role as a healer and medical professional is “to create herbal solutions to chronic inflammatory conditions, based on scientific understanding of traditional wisdom by addressing the inflammatory component.”

He continues, “We are developing new protocols for preventing chronic diseases using traditional plants and utilizing modern technology in order to extract what we’re looking for from each plant. Modern science complements the lessons we’ve learned from traditional healers. For example, when you ask a traditional healer, ‘What is this plant [good] for?’, they will tell you, ‘This [noni] is good for the heart, it will help you control your blood pressure.’”

Today, science confirms what Hawaiian healers have known for generations. As an example, there is a proven connection to taking noni for treating high blood pressure, because it often blocks NF-kB, which is a protein complex that controls DNA, cytokine production and cell survival. Incorrect regulation of NF-kB has been linked to cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, septic shock, viral infection, and improper immune development.

Kumu Dane utilizes four main plants from lava lapa‘au which specifically block NF-kB: noni, ‘awa, ‘uhaloa, and ‘ōlena, which specifically block the pathway to inflammation. These plants address pehu (acute inflammation) and pehupehu (chronic inflammation.) When pehupehu is not addressed the condition can result in chronic and autoimmune diseases.

Wellness Wisdom, Healthcare Evolution

‘Awapuhi kuahiwi is a beautiful and medicinally useful plant.

Healthcare has certainly developed beyond the conventional western concept of treating isolated symptoms with synthetic medications. The science of health continues to evolve with mainstream acceptance of alternative modalities, based on ancestral wellness wisdom.

La‘au lapa‘au and other traditional practices have provided successful results throughout the generations. Recent scientific research supports the why and how of what makes traditional herbal medicine practices work. ❖

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