Paiko Expeditions: Medicinal Plants Tour

We always jump at a chance to learn more about the plant world, and this week was no exception. Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu offers a medicinal plants tour that guides you through their extensive collection (only $3 for residents). This walking tour is led by a knowledgeable docent who shares fun facts and interesting uses of plants from the Americas, Africa, and Polynesia. As an unrelated bonus, Foster is a great spot to spy some of the island's birds, from brightly colored parakeets to nesting waxbill finches in the cannonball tree.

Calabash Nutmeg

Calabash nutmeg is a large tropical tree from Africa. Alien-like, scented flowers hang delicately from the branches. The tree produces large fruits filled with pulp and aromatic brown seeds, used as a substitute for nutmeg. In traditional medicine, the seeds are used as a stimulant, to treat headaches and aid digestion. They are also used as rosary beads and are considered by some to have magical properties.


Also known as the Indian Mulberry, noni is a small tree with large leaves. The fruit is a rather lumpy, ovoid shape; translucent white to gray when ripe & smells "pungent" (to say the least) when broken open. In ancient times, noni was a valuable dye plant and producing a red or yellow color. Widely used in Polynesian traditional medicine, noni was used to treat everything from wounds and abscesses, to fractures, styes, diabetes. Noni continues to be used today by some who believe it can help treat ailments such as asthma & cancer.


Cuachilote is a short, tropical, fruit bearing tree from Mexico. The ridged, green- yellow fruits are reportedly sweet and edible either raw or cooked.  The fruit is sometimes made into pickles or preserves. Cuachilote was traditionally used as a remedy for colds and the roots were used as a diuretic.


Providing a perfect perch for orchids, the calabash tree has nocturnal, bell-shaped flowers. The shell of the fruit is hard and durable once dried, making it useful for maracas, containers for drinking mate, and a number of other items. In the Americas, the fruit was used as a purgative, cold remedy, and as treatment for coughs.

Sausage Tree

The sausage tree is sacred to many African communities and has a wide variety of uses in traditional and Western medicine. The dark red, pungent flowers open at night and are pollinated by bats and moths. Both ripe and unripe fruits are poisonous to humans, but fruits are sometimes dried and fermented to enhance the flavor of traditional beers. All parts of the tree are used in herbal medicines, for digestive and respiratory disorders, and to treat infections and wounds. The sausage tree is also used in a variety of commercial applications to treat skin complaints.

Blue Marble Tree leaves & fruit

A buttressed rainforest tree native to Australia, the Blue Marble tree is named for its distinctive blue fruits. The green leaves of the tree turn vibrant red as the edible, bitter fruit appears. Traditionally, tea made from the tree was drunk as a purgative, although the roots were also used for the treatment of rheumatism. The seeds have an oil rich kernel which was processed to treat skin disorders, and whole seeds are used for jewelry.

Otaheite Gooseberry

This species is believed to have originated in Madagascar, and is now commonly grown in Indonesia, South East Asia, and Guam. The star-shaped green fruits are very acidic, and are processed with sugar to make sauces, syrup, and jelly. In Indonesia, the tart flesh is added to many dishes as a flavoring. Medicinally, the fruits are taken as liver tonic, intended to enrich the blood. Syrup is prescribed to aid digestion, and the seeds are cathartic.

Author's Note:This information is provided for general interest only. It is not intended as guidance for medicinal use.

Sources: Kew Royal Botanical Gardens

Whistler, Dr. W. Arthur. Polynesian Herbal Medicine. Pacific Tropical Botanical, 1992. Available from the Hawaii Public Library System or for purchase online.

Morton, Julia F. "The Calabash (Crescentia cujete) in Folk Medicine". Economic Botany Vol. 22, No. 3  (Jul. - Sep., 1968), pp. 273-280.

Morton, Julia F. "Otaheite Gooseberry". Fruits of Warm Climates. 1987, pp. 217-219.

More Paiko Expeditions: Koko Crater Plumeria Grove, Big Island, Manoa Falls