Ancient Hawaiians used the plants in their environment for many purposes, including food, fiber, lumber and medicine. They brewed teas, pounded the roots of plants with a mortar and pestle, administered enemas, applied plant material to wounds and many other uses. Although some plants are now extinct and some of the knowledge has been lost, information about many Hawaiian medicinal plants remains, some of which continue to help people feel better today.
Hawaiians called plants in the hibiscus family “kokio” and used all of them for the same basic purposes. They steeped flower buds in water and drank it as a tea to counter the effects of constipation and dry throats. They used the bark for congested chests and to ease the pain of childbirth.
Called ‘awa in Hawaii, the root of this member of the pepper family continues to be used for reducing feelings of anxiety. The first Polynesian settlers introduced this plant to the islands because it was very important to their culture and to their medical system. It is said to have helped induce sleep, especially when fever was present, and they also used it to strengthen those feeling weak. Kava was also used to stimulate urination, to reduce the pain of headaches and to help heal the lungs from congestion and other ailments.
Ancient Polynesians introduced the kukui tree, which today is the Hawaiian state tree. Kamani is another nut tree that the early Polynesians introduced from Tahiti. The nuts of both trees are pressed into oil, which is used to cure skin ailments of many types. Hawaiians used the kernel of kukui nuts as a laxative and the bark for asthma. They even used the flowers of the kukui tree to help children who had sores in their mouths--mothers would chew up some flowers and then feed them to the afflicted child.
The ‘ulu or breadfruit tree is an early Polynesian introduction that remains an important source of a starchy melon-type food. The trees emit a milky sap when leaves or branches are cut or broken off--Hawaiians used this sap for skin diseases, dry and cracked skin, cuts, burns and other uses.
The large koa tree is a true Hawaiian native. It didn’t take the first settlers long to learn that it made excellent canoes and that its leaves were useful as medicine. Early medical practitioners, called kahuna la‘au lapa‘au, would cover a feverish person’s sleeping mat with koa leaves, and then the leaves would become warm and induce sweating. Hawaiians also treated weakly babies with a mixture of koa leaf ashes and other plants.