While most Mediterranean herbs are used for cooking, infusions, or aromatheraphy, Philippine herbs are known more for their medicinal and therapeutic qualities. In fact, we’re one of the few countries in the world to officially recognize plants as traditional remedies for various illnesses and physical afflictions.
In my tropical garden, I have a patch of culinary herbs that I use for my favorite Italian or Greek dishes (see my earlier column, “Growing Herbs in the Tropics,” The Manila Times, May 24). I also have a few local herbs and plants. Sourcing them is a bit difficult though not impossible, especially if you live in the provinces where there are still open farmlands and forested areas.
Knowledge about local plants and trees are limited compared to the vast literature that’s available about Western herbs and medicinal plants. The situation is improving somewhat following the advances in the Internet, and the resulting proliferation of health websites and blogs.
For those interested in Philippine plants, the most notable is the website of Godofredo Umali Stuart (stuartxchange.com).
He has a comprehensive database of over 1,020 Philippine medicinal plants, which includes basic plant data, traditional uses, photographs, and many more, including links to relevant scientific studies and other references. Searching is made easy by arranging and listing the plants in their various English, Tagalog, or Chinese names.
There are also a few books written by local authors that are good sources of information. The Medicinal Fruits and Vegetables written by Jaime Galvez Tan and Ma. Rebecca Galvez Tan features 61 Philippine fruits and vegetables that are traditionally used for both food and medicine (available at National Book Store, P595).
The Tans’ book has an Index According to Uses that lists the common illnesses and the traditionally prescribed plants for healing. The range of local plants is simply amazing, an A to W of the common ailments of Filipinos—from abdominal pains to gout to rheumatism to wounds, and even wrinkles.
Listed were 32 possible plants for wounds, 28 for fever, 25 for diarrhea, 21 for intestinal parasites, and 19 for coughs. This also looks like a list of all ailments that typically strike children, especially those living in the rough and tumble world of a rural environment.
Filipinos from a certain generation, even those now living in the cities, know of a few simple “first-aid” from common local plants that they had learned as children. If you fell and had a minor scratch or wound, crush some bayabas leaves and apply them as a poultice. For a bum stomach, your mother would boil some caimito leaves and ask you to drink the juice. Rashes or itches were usually eased with the use of kamias leaves.
In the provinces, the practice of going to a local healer or herbalist is still strong and local land is still abundant with these medicinal plants and trees. Fortunately, we now have more scientific data backing up these traditional practices, such that the Department of Health (DOH) has officially recognized 10 Philippines plants as having medicinal value.
These plants are: akapulko (Cassia alata), ampalaya (bitter gourd), bayabas (guava), bawang (garlic), lagundi (Vitex negundo), niyug-niyogan (Quisqualis indica), sambong (Blumea balsamifera), tsaang gubat (Carmona retusa), yerba buena (Mentha cordifolia Opiz), and ulasimang bato (Peperomia pellucida).
Local companies have already developed commercial preparations for these plants, starting with the herbal teas and supplements. Now there’s also a cough and asthma medicine made from the lagundi plant, branded as Ascof Lagundi from Pascual Laboratories.
There are plans to have 10 more local plants recognized by the DOH, but these are apparently awaiting the result of more exhaustive clinical and chemical tests.
What I didn’t find in the literature on local healing plants was a specific herb or plant to cure insomnia, depression, or any mental ailments. Obviously these are more urban and modern-day illnesses that the traditional folk healers didn’t encounter in the rural areas.
But given that we have identified over a thousand medicinal herbs and plants in the Philippines, there must be one or two that can help ease the pain of those afflicted with this admittedly more contemporary malady.
I have several friends who suffer from insomnia, an affliction that seems to be common among Filipinos nowadays amid the demands of career and family, and the other stresses of daily life in a metropolitan city.
So far all the herbal remedies for insomnia that I found were based on plants and herbs that come from countries in the temperate zone, and that are not commonly grown here such as California poppy, hops, kava kava, lemon balm, passionflower, skull cap, valerian root, catnip, and chamomile.
Local pharmaceutical companies could perhaps look into this area to determine which Philippine plants have compounds that are relaxants or those with mild sedative properties. If they do, they could give imported Ambien a run for its money.
Among the local herbs and plants that I have in my garden are lagundi, balbas pusa (Java tea), tsaang gubat (Fokkien tea), Sambungai (gynura procumbens) and gotu kola. I also have the medium-sized trees whose leaves, flowers, bark, and fruit are used traditionally for various maladies including banaba, caimito, guava, kamias, and ilang-ilang.
Gotu kola bears special mention because it is one of the few plants with a reputation for being able to prolong life. Noted expert in Chinese medicine Daniel Reid in his book A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs notes that gotu kola (hydrocotyle asiatica) is well known among Himalayan yogis and Taoists as a potent longevity herb and brain tonic.
“The Chinese herbalist Lee Ching-yuen, who is reported to have died in 1933 at the age of 256, recommended it above all other herbs for prolonging life, and the famous Hindu guru Nanddo Narian revealed it to be his secret elixir at the age of 107,” Reid relates in his book.
Reid recommends an infusion of gotu kola with honey. This herb by the way is available locally and is known in Tagalog as “takip-kohol” or pennyworth in English.
Its traditional use is as a diuretic and treatment of eczema, but maybe it is the secret food of those few long-living Filipinos you see around.
(Disclaimer: The contents of this column are for general information only. These do not make any medical claims nor are meant to be diagnostic. Readers should consult a doctor for their medical concerns.)