|Young Milky Pine (Alstonia scholaris)|
The importance of plant names in the local language is an example of a complex structure of meaning. Different plants are used for specific purposes in our traditional societies. The same plant known by a common name can have sacred names to different people. Most often these sacred names are linked to myths, rituals, and spiritual powers. Many people know the general names for plants, but different species have a different name or an additional word to indicate colour, wild plants, domesticated plants, or cultivated.
Where plants have medicinal and ritual values they may have sacred names known only to those who claim ownership of the plant and its powers. The tanget (Cordyline fruticosa), for example, is generally known in Nagum Boiken language as hawa. This name includes the cultivated ones, which are red in color and appears in long and short round leaves. The green wild ones are also known as hawa. To differentiate the colors, the Nagum Boikens name the green wild hawa as ofui hawa and the domesticated red one as kli hawa. The hawa is an important plant used in medicine and rituals. It carries secret names known only to people who use the hawa for its spiritual power. For example, the kli hawa used by a family in Ulighembi is known by two names: Haiwanka and Yarawali. These names are linked to the original two brothers who began the practice of maiye sorcery. The evocation of these sacred names with the use of hawa for protection purposes is restricted to the family with the right to these names.
The names of plants have deep roots in the customs, ritual, cosmology, belief system and history of a people. Most plants have a spiritual connection or are linked to the gods of these plants. Learning the local names of these plants helps us to understand their importance in traditional medicinal practices in the indigenous cosmology, and in the psychological practices of the people. It is easy to overlook the significances of each plant in society.
Medicinal plants are connected to the belief system, the mythological cosmos, and the cultural practices of the Nagum Boikens. The use and adaptation of plants in various rituals and human activities are necessitated by circumstances that are necessary for the survival of the people. In Kemabolo village of Rigo district, Central province, for example, where much of the environment is dominated by savannah kunai grass (Imperata cylindrica) and kangaroo grass (Themeda australis), with scattered growth of eucalyptus gum trees, and a small growth of insidious forest along the water course, the incidence of snakebite is relatively high.
More than five plants (Semicarpus sp, Passiflora foetida, Hyptis, Piper betle Samanea, Carica papaya) are used as medicine for snakebites. The high number of usages of many plants for one purpose in one area alone suggests that protection of these plants is high in the conservation psychology of these people. There is also the suggestion that people in this area have a vast knowledge of using different plants to cure snakebites. On the other hand there is the possibility of borrowing of knowledge from other others to supplement what they already have on medicinal plants that can cure snakebite.
Take for example the Milky Pine plant common in many lowland coastal areas. The Alstonia Scholaris (Common name: Milky Pine) and Alstonia Spectibilis (Common name Mountain Milky Pine) are used for variety of illnesses around the country. In Waria, I collected both species, which were considered very highly by the medicine men. The Ino (Alstonia spectibilis) and Nungwa (Alstonia scholaris), both were used for bronchitis and asthma. Nungwa (Alstonia scholaris) was considered very strong in its use for sexually transmitted diseases and malaria.
In Kemabolo the Mountain Milky Pine (Alstonia spectibilis) is used for treatment of asthma, beside its use in gardens as shade trees for banana trees. In parts of Morobe, Alstonia spectibilis is used to treat malaria, fever, and stomachache. The bark, latex, and leaves are used. In Normanby Island and parts of Central Province the plant is used to treat coughs, applied to coughs, and used as poison antidote (Woodley 1991: 19). The chemical component of the plant is that the alkaloids ditamine, echitamine, echitenine and alstonamine are present (Woodly1991: 19; Manske, 1965). The plant is a chemically active plant. The chemicals present in Alstonia spectabilis are also present in Alstonia scholaris, which has additional alkaloids echitamidine, picrinine (Manske, 1970) and picralinal.
Ellen Woodley reports that the Alstonia scholaris is widely used in Papua New Guinea against malaria. The plant is used for abdominal pains in the Sepik and the Northern province, for cough on Normanby Island and for gonorrhea in Milne Bay. Other uses reported are for asthma, hypertension, lung cancer and pneumonia in Manus, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippine (Burkhill 1966; Warburg 1899, Steenis-Kruseman; Woodley 1991: 17). These two plants are impressive in their medicinal properties and in their usefulness to many people in the country. The Nagum Boiken name for Alstonia scholaris is hembe, which is used for asthma, fever, and for hair dye.
Plants such as Alstonia scholaris (Milky Pine) or Alstonia spectabilis (Mountain Milky Pine) must be properly researched on for extraction of their medicinal products.UPNG researchers Gelenta Salopa and Prem P. Rai of UPNG in collaboration with Han Wohlmuth of Southern Cross University, Australia, reported in 2009 at the UPNG Science conference that the Alstonia scholaris had the potential for full development.
My view is that there is a need for research and product development of medicine derived from our local biodiversity. Investment in product development should be our next phase of national development. We need to develop our own medicinal products from the natural environment we are blessed with. We can do it if we work together.
The important message I want to bring across here is that we must do everything possible to preserve the traditional knowledge systems of our communities. A shift of paradigm in research and product development is needed for PNG today.