By Kaila Blevins
My grandmother grew up in Hawai’i, so my childhood was filled with trying traditional dishes like poi, and my vocabulary is peppered with Hawaiian words. But, I did not know much about traditional Hawaiian herbalism and began researching.
La’au lapa’au is one of several traditional healing methods practiced by Native Hawaiians, and it is rooted in the use of plants. A traditional healer’s job goes beyond just prescribing plants. They use a holistic approach to ensure that the body, mind, and spirit are in harmony to promote good health. The lack of harmony between the three elements results in illness. Beyond assessing the harmony between the body, mind, and spirit, healers follow traditional practices to ensure harmony with the environment as well.
Traditionally, the plants were harvested in the lush forests or were planted near heiaus, or sacred temples, if a healer resided there. Today, foraging at the temples is forbidden due to the sacredness and cultural significance of them. However, healers from then and now continue to follow the same principles when approaching plants. They revere the plants for the gifts that they offer through their medicinal properties and act as stewards by tending to their needs and promoting sustainable foraging practices. This process acknowledges the innate intelligence of plants. As the healer approaches the required plant needed for healing, they think of the person who enlisted their help before kneeling and praying, sharing their gratitude for the plant, and asking permission to harvest. If permission is granted, the harvest begins. Once the necessary amount is gathered, the healer never turns their back to the plant–a societal norm that is also practiced when near elders–backing away, giving thanks for the gift. In some cases, the healer may not be the one to gather the medicine. Instead, this may be prescribed as part of the healing journey, and the client will forage and perform the ceremony of giving thanks to the required plants.
Furthermore, since the plants are Earth’s gifts for humans to use, traditional healers will not charge for their services. The lack of payment ensures a lifelong commitment to the practice and prevents greed from tainting the practice.
Between each island, the plant palette changes, so the island on which the healer resides dictates the plants used in their practice. However, some plants are indigenous to the majority of the islands, or they’ve been naturalized. Below is a brief list of plants and some of their herbal uses:
Aleurites moluccanus (kukui, candlenut)
Declared the state tree in 1959, kukui leaves are crushed into poultices, and the roasted nuts are pounded into salves to treat sores and external ulcers. Historically, mothers chewed the flowers and gave them to their children to heal sores. After recovering from an illness, the nut meat is often combined with fish and ‘uala (sweet potato) for a nutrient-rich meal. Culturally, the nuts were used in candles, and the ash collected from burned nuts was used for tattoos and canoe paint.
Morinda citrifolia (noni, Indian mulberry)
Introduced in 1941 from Fiji, noni has naturalized across the islands and is also cultivated due to its numerous herbal benefits. The leaves are used to treat a variety of skin problems, including cuts, boils, growths, and even lice. Traditional healers use all parts of the tree as a laxative.
Saccharum officinarum (kō, sugarcane)
Chewing on the sugary stalk can strengthen the teeth and gums, while the juice is used to sweeten other medicines, or is combined with Ipomoea alba (tropical white morning glory) and salt to treat deep cuts and wounds. In folklore, the juice of kō is used to create a love potion. However, the correct species must be utilized since others are used to block love potions.
After I completed the draft of this blog post, I called my grandmother and discussed the topic with her. While she was not familiar with the uses of the plants, it did remind her of the landscape of her youth. Furthermore, I enjoyed learning about the Native experience and interactions they had with the environment, since their practices are rooted in respect for their environment and plants.
Photo credits: 1) Hawaiian Healer Po‘okela Papa Henry Auwae (Jeanella and Kehaulani Keopuhiwa, National Library of Medicine); 2) Heiaus (National Park Service); 3) Aleurites molucanna flowers and fruit (Hawaiian Plants and Tropical Flowers); 4) Morinda citrifolia (Plants of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park); 5) Saccharum officinarum (National Tropical Botanical Garden).
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Aleurites moluccanus (kukui). (n.d.). Accessed 7/2020. https://www.kapiolani.hawaii.edu/aleurites-moluccana
Kalama, H. (n.d.).: Healing With Spirituality And Herbs. Accessed 7/2021. http://heyokamedicine.com/laau-lapaau
Lincoln, N. K. (2017). Description of Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. Accessed 7/2021. http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane
National Park Service. Wailua Complex of Heiaus. Accessed 8/13/2021. https://www.nps.gov/places/wailua-complex-of-heiaus.htm
Timboy, M. (n.d.). La‘au Lapa‘au: Medicinal Plants and Their Healing Properties. Accessed 7/2021. https://keolamagazine.com/agriculture/medicinal-plants/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing. Accessed 7/2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/healing-plants.html
Kaila Blevins is the 2020-2021 National Herb Garden intern. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Technology and a minor in sustainability. She is pursuing a Master’s in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University while also interning in the National Herb Garden. In her spare time, she likes to read, paint, brew kombucha, and experiment with its flavors, as well as spend time with her family and pets.