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October 2021

Hawaii Med J. 1998 Jan; 57(1): 382-6.

Herbal medicines in Hawaii from tradition to convention.

Norton SA.

RW Bliss Army Health Center, Fort Huachuca, AZ 85613, USA.

The stories of kava and chaulmoogra demonstrate the importance of herbal products in ancient and recent Hawaiian medicine. Kava is a psychoactive beverage that has been used ceremonially for millennia throughout the Pacific. It is a nonfermented depressant that causes tranquil intoxication in which thoughts and memory remain clear. Its broad pharmacologic activity led to use in Hawaii to treat skin disorders and later in Germany to treat gonorrhea. Kava is now available outside the Pacific basin as a relaxant, emerging as a popular, albeit deritualized, natural product. In the late 19th century, the main treatment for leprosy was chaulmoogra, extracted from Hydnocarpus seeds. Chaulmoogra had been a traditional treatment for skin diseases in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Chaulmoogra from Asian markets was expensive and usually adulterated so the USDA decided to plant Hydnocarpus in Hawaii. Joseph Rock, a botanist at University of Hawaii, trekked through southeast Asia collecting fresh seeds to plant on Oahu. Rock's trees provided chaulmoogra for leprosy patients on Molokai and elsewhere until it was replaced by dapsone. Chaulmoogra, once the treatment for leprosy worldwide, is now nearly forgotten; kava, once poorly known outside the Pacific, is now a widely-used alternative medicine. Hawaii will probably continue its role in the transition of plants from traditional use to conventional use.

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