Recording medicinal plants in an Indonesian village
A team of botanists has been engaged in recording plants used in herbal medicine in Buton, Indonesia, to ensure the knowledge persists beyond any future spread of Western treatments and medicines. Many drugs used in modern medicine were discovered because it was known that certain plants were effective treatments for particular diseases, with chemists then isolating the drugs from the plants. Some examples include quinine, a treatment for malaria, isolated from Cinchona species, and digitoxin, a treatment for heart disease, isolated from foxglove. The very effective anti-cancer drugs vincristine and taxol® have also been isolated from plants.
The people of Buton have a long tradition of herbal medicine and still rely on this knowledge, having little access to Western medicines. Working with Operation Wallacea in Labundobundo and nearby villages, the botanists observed what medicinal plants the local people grow in their gardens and sell in local markets. People were interviewed about the plants, in particular Wa Hamsiah, the herbal medicine expert of Labundobundo, who could say which plants are used for which ailment, how the medicines are prepared and what doses are used.In all, at least 33 medicinal plants were recorded, used in 23 therapeutic categories.
The villagers who knew most about medicinal plants were the older people, and the worry is that knowledge of this sort might die with them
Plants were identified that are used to treat many ailments and illnesses, including common problems like diarrhoea (for instance Psidium guajava), headache (Plectranthus scutellarioides), sickness (Kaempferia galanga) and coughs (Barringtonia racemosa). Other plants are used to help people in a more general way, for example to produce tonics (Arcangelisia flava) and repel insects (Cordyline terminalis).
A range of plants are used as antiseptics (eg Alpinia galanga, containing anti-microbial essential oils) in the treatment of wounds, from small cuts to tropical ulcers. Some plants are used in Buton in the same way as they are widely used in South-East Asia; for instance Orthosiphon aristatus (known to contain diuretic compounds) for urinary problems and Senna alata (containing flavonoids and anthraquinones) for skin infections.
Serious illnesses also have herbal treatments in Buton. Malaria is treated using plants such as Andrographis paniculata, Tinospora crispa and Arcangelisia flava. Laboratory studies have shown these species to contain chemicals (eg berberine) that are capable of killing or inhibiting malarial parasites, although none of these substances is as effective as quinine in controlling malaria.
A species of fig (Ficus septica) is used as a treatment for chicken pox and, interestingly, recent studies have shown that it contains chemicals (phenanthroindolizine alkaloids) capable of inhibiting at least one type of animal virus (coronavirus).
Also of interest is that a species of mistletoe (genus Scurrula) is used in the treatment of cancer. In Java, Scurrula atropurpurea is traditionally used as a cancer treatment and contains compounds that are inhibitors of cancer cell invasion in vitro. A different species of mistletoe is used in Europe as a herbal treatment for cancer, although the clinical evidence for its effectiveness is inconclusive.
Different uses for same plants
It was found that the plants used as herbal remedies in Buton are a mixed group, some being native plants of the local forests whilst others are introduced species. Comparisons with medicinal plants used elsewhere in South-East Asia show that some species are used to treat different ailments in different places. Since chemical analysis reveals that many plants contain a variety of chemicals which have various physiological effects, different communities might find different uses for the same plant species.
It was noted that the villagers who knew most about medicinal plants were the older people, and the worry is that knowledge of this sort might die with them. As young people move to cities and understanding of the land is lost it becomes urgent to record folk knowledge of plants.
Thanks go to Nenny Babo, Aelys Humphreys and Paddy Moss, who were members of the team.