Not long ago, I vacationed in Oahu for the same reason many people do: To relax. As a fan of the now-syndicated Lost, I joked with friends prior to my departure about the “healing power” of the Hawaiian Islands. In the end, however, I got more than respite: I got an education. As it turned out, I learned that Oahu does contain healing powers… in its myriad plants and wildlife.
One highlight of my visit was a hike with Noah Ryan, a Hawaiian studies professor and expert on the islands’ history, culture and botany. During our trek through Oahu’s nature-rich North Shore, he identified several plants and the ways, historically, they’ve been used to treat various ailments. At first, it was a sea of names, the scientific terms ebbing and flowing from my brain like the tide. That was, until he uttered the words, “…and it’s used to treat certain types of cancers.” Treat cancer? With a plant?
By the end of our hike, Noah had taught me that nature provides ways to heal and cure just about anything, if we let it. Below are five of the most fascinating natural forms of medicine, some of which can even be planted in a small, personal garden.
Also known as kava or, scientifically, piper methysticum, this multi-faceted plant is known to treat a variety of ailments, including insomnia. In fact, some pharmacologists have labeled awa as borderline addictive since, they say, it can create a euphoric sensation. Not entirely unexpected, since this dynamic plant has an impressive resume of what it cures, including body aches and pains, as well as colds and respiratory disease.
Many people recognize the word “awapuhi” from shampoo bottles promising to cure a bad hair day. In reality, this plant - also called yellow ginger - eliminates much more than the frizzies. It’s widely known to help relieve nausea and stomach discomfort but also helps minor cuts and burns heal. Some use the ashes of awapuhi; others liquefy it.
There’s no question that life and people in Hawaii are at least slightly more relaxed than the rest of us. That might be due to the presence and consumption of mamaki. The plant’s leaves are typically picked, dried and used to make a tea that can treat high blood pressure and stress. Some reports have also credited the consumption of mamaki with reduced cholesterol.
Having made its way over to Hawaii from Polynesia, pia is appropriately known to some as Polynesian Arrowroot. In its edible form, pia is sometimes mixed with coconut milk to make certain types of desserts. Medicinally, however, pia has been mixed with red clay (abundant in Hawaii) to treat and restore iron to the body after diarrhea. Some sources also say this mixture has been used to stop bleeding when placed on open wounds.
Even the American Cancer Society and National Institutes of Health have published papers on it: Research has shown Noni - also known as Indian Mulberry - to treat cancer. Most frequently used in its juiced form, noni has been said to effectively treat some cancers in their earlier stages. Other studies, according one report from the American Cancer Society, say the plant can help prevent cancer with the use of damnacanthal, extracted from noni, which “may inhibit a chemical process that turns normal cells into cancer cells.”
Image: Scot Nelson