The islands in the Pacific are home to hundreds of interesting herbs: Fiji has 2,000 native plant species, Papua New Guinea has 15,000, and Samoa has 550. Much of the collective history of the Pacific Islands is fundamentally linked to the use of these plants, which include kava (Piper methysticum) and noni (Morinda citrifolia).
Kava contains compounds known as kavalactones, which have analgesic, anesthetic, and tranquilizing effects. The herb has gained worldwide popularity as a stress and anxiety reliever. Noni, or Indian mulberry, is the fruit of a shrubby, evergreen tree. Fermented noni juice is consumed throughout the Pacific as a traditional prophylactic against illness, and the fruit is traditionally believed to cure sore throats and the sting of the poisonous stonefish.
Noni fruit and juice contain compounds that are locally believed to help treat a variety of ailments, including high blood pressure, arthritis, and cancer. The vanilla bean is also grown and exported from some Pacific islands. A climbing vine of the orchid family, vanilla produces seedpods—known in commerce as beans—used for manufacturing extracts, oleo-resins, and alcoholic tinctures, as well as flavorings for ice creams, baked goods, chocolates, liquors, soft drinks, tobaccos, and perfumes.
The screwpine, or pandanus (Pandanus tectorius), is one of the South Pacific’s most useful plants. In Samoa, fragrant pandanus flowers are used to make wreaths called lei, which are worn by chiefs. In Tahiti, juice from pandanus root tips is used to treat skin inflammation. In Tonga, the juice is mixed with turmeric (Curcuma longa) and grated coconut and is applied to topical sores. The skin of ripe pandanus fruit is used to treat urinary tract problems, and in Fiji, a tea made from pandanus leaves is consumed as a remedy for diarrhea. Numerous other medicinal uses for the herb include the treatment of asthma, back pain, heart conditions, and internal fractures.
These few examples, from among the tens of thousands of plants recorded to date with medicinal or related uses around the world, show just how strongly plants have influenced the trajectory of human civilization. Despite the advent of virtual living through the extraordinarily sophisticated array of technology available today, it’s clear that plants will continue to play a central role in our lives and remain key to our survival as a species.
Quite often in the Pacific, as well as elsewhere, common foods are also used as medicines. Colocasia esculenta, known as taro and by other names in the Pacific region, is a staple food crop, providing starch, essential minerals, vitamins, and fiber to the people who prepare and eat the root. The leaves, after being properly prepared to eliminate the irritating calcium oxalate crystals they contain, are cooked, mashed, often mixed with coconut milk, and eaten as a delicious green vegetable. People on each island can recognize a dozen or more cultivars of taro, each with a distinctive appearance, taste, or other trait.
Taro leaves are often rolled into cups for drinking beverages and medicinal teas, and on Fiji a boiled extract of the macerated leaves is used to promote menstruation. The leaves, mixed with other herbs, are used to treat conditions ranging from stomach disorders and cysts to wounds and boils. A multiherb mix containing the scraped stem of taro is administered to children to build their appetites. However, no matter what the use, all parts of this plant must be thoroughly cooked to eliminate the chance of oxalate toxicity.
Important Herbs Of Oceania
|Herb||Examples Of Uses|
|Corkwood (Duboisia spp.)||Stimulant|
|Gum tree (Eucalyptus spp.)||Astringent, cough medicine|
|Jequirity (Abrus precatorius)||Aboriginal body ornament|
|Kava (Piper methysticum)||Anxiety reliever|
|Mint bush (Prostanthera spp.)||Antibiotic, fungicide|
|Mountain pepperberry (Tasmannia lanceolata)||Hot, pepperlike spice|
|Myrtle (Backhousia spp.)||Fragrance|
|Old man saltbush (Atriplex nummurlaria)||Treatment for scurvy|
|Sticky hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa)||Toothache and insect sting remedy|
|Taro (Colocasia esculenta)||Staple food, all-purpose medicine|