Native Plants Can Heal Your Wounds

Honolulu Advertiser & Star Bulletin February 9, 1992

Much information about native Hawaiian medicinal plants is lost, but several important medicinal herbs are still in regular use in the Islands.

One of them is Noni, which has reputed value for a wide range of ills.

"People are crazy about this plant. They use it for diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer," and many other illnesses, said Isabella Abbott, G.P. Wilder Professor of Botany at the University of Hawaii. Abbott said she doesn't hand out medical advice, but gets plenty of calls from people who are looking for medicinal herbs and can't locate them.

Her interest in ethnobotany, the native uses of plants, has given her the reputation of one who knows where to find useful plants. And normally she does know, she said. The plant about which she gets the most calls, perhaps 10 a week, is Noni, known to science as Morinda citrifolia. Noni is one of the plants believed to have been brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian immigrants. It is an attractive shrub with large, shiny green leaves, but has one characteristic that limits its value to those who would consider growing it in their yards or gardens.

The fruit stinks.

"It smells like something the dog dragged in," Abbott said. "It's a beautiful tree. It is. What I would do is pick off the fruit before they're ripe. Medicinally, fortunately, the half-ripe fruit is as good or better than the ripe, or few people would even consider it.

Former University of Hawaii researcher Dr. Ralph M. Heinicke, writing in a 1985 issue of the Bulletin of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, said the fruit contains a natural alkaloid, xeronine, as well as a chemical that is converted to xeronine in the digestive tract. Xeronine may have some beneficial medicinal effects in diseases related to a lack of the chemical, he wrote.

Heinicke, while making no guarantees, lists ailments which in some cases might be eased by the use of Noni: high blood pressure, menstrual cramps, arthritis, gastric ulcers, sprains, injuries, mental depression, senility, poor digestion, atherosclerosis, blood vessel problems, drug addiction and others. It may even help relieve pain, Heinicke wrote.

Abbott said she is careful not to promote the use of specific herbs for specific diseases. "When I talk about ethnobotanical plants, I use all kinds of disclaimers," she said. But she may also add personal experiences.

Her mother, Abbott said, used the ripe fruit juice on cuts and scrapes, to prevent infection. She assumes that such products as Noni juice or aloe sap simply create a barrier to the entry of germs.

One upcoming source of plenty of information on the subject is "Polynesian Herbal Medicine," by ethnobotanist W. Arthur Whistler, to be published later this year by the National Tropical Botanical Garden.