Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
May, 2008
Regional Report

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Dr. Tavana chops Noni leaves as a poultice for my sprained ankle.

Gifts of the Garden Isle

Winged, quarter-size, pink and white flowers drip from 3- to 4-foot stems. "It's a begonia BUSH," smiled Beth Judy as we left Hilo Hattie's near the Lihu'e airport in Kaua'i, Hawaii. Fiery orange crocosmia and blue and white puffball hydrangeas are wild around the Kalalau Lookout parking lot.

Beth and I are two of seven fortunate environmental journalists chosen as Fellows to study at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. In his introduction last week, NTBG Director and CEO Charles R. Wichman shared the wisdom of his Hawaiian Elders. "You need to listen to the Aina -- that which feeds the land and sea," he urged. Nature points the way; it's up to us to pay attention.

The NTBG has an ambitious mission. One aspect is dedication to the discovery, collection, preservation, and perpetuation of ethnobotany. Staff collect medicinal plants of Hawaii and the greater Pacific islands, often with a healer and including the healer or source's name and plant location. "Scientists are only beginning to understand the knowledge indigenous people hold," said Wichman.

Ethnobotany in Practice
Descending a Limahuli Garden path in Hanalei, I slipped on gravel. My left ankle and lower leg folded indelicately under my right leg. Down I went. Ouch! A bulge quickly puffed up at the joint. Swelling spread. While new friends were beachside, I sat with ankle elevated and iced, annoyed about likely missing the upcoming seabird and Waimae Canyon walks.

Good things can come from misfortune. Turns out NGBT Director of Education, Dr. Namulau'ulu Tavana learned healing arts while growing up to be chief in his Samoan village. He walks and talks ethnobotany ... and does hands-on practice. Chopping five large leaves of Noni he'd picked to treat my sprained ankle, Dr. Tavana shared some of his story. In his village "every family has a healer and a family specialty such as bones, skin, pregnancy." His own specialty is eye, nose, and throat. Noni is primary in his medicine kit.

Native to Hawaii and many Pacific islands, shrubby Noni (Morinda citrifolia) is often within arm's reach. This tropical perennial is a virtual natural pharmacy. Healers use its waxy leaves as a topical anti-inflammatory; squeeze nectar from its white flowers to heal styes and skin irritations; and suck juice from its knobby fruit for respiratory problems.

How does it work? "We are trying to figure out what chemical or chemicals it is," said Tavana. "That's part of the story. That's why the islanders use the whole plant."

The medicinal plant is little without the healer, who considers not only the malady but the context. "Healers believe in holistic, not separate entities," Tavana explained. "When you go in and see a healer and say, 'I have a problem with my arm,' the healer considers how that pain in the arm affects the entire body. When you're healing one part, you're healing the whole body -- mentally, physically, and spiritually. The healer always has a little prayer in the heart."

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