Sunday, February 24, 2013

Medicinal Plants in PNG

Great publications remain useful and relevant even many years after its first print run. One of my recent acquisitions is a book on medicinal plants of Papua New Guinea. The book is based on many years of scientific research, involving staff and students of the University of Papua New Guinea.

The World Health Organization (WHO) published Medicinal Plants of Papua New Guinea (2009) four years ago. This publication is a result of a series of collaborations among several academics at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG).

The scientists of the University of Papua New Guinea were able to compile their data on medicinal plants in Papua New Guinea in this glossy colored book. Professor Prem P. Rai of UPNG School of Medicine and Health Sciences, together with Professor Teatulohi Matainaho, Professor Simon Saulei, and Dr. Umadevi Ambihaipahar were responsible for the data collection and compilation. Dr. Geoffrey A. Cordell, Professor Emeritus of University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, and Pharmacognosy, College of Pharmacy provided the technical editing of the manuscript before its was published.

The publication brings together a wealth of information or scientific data on 126 medicinal plants of Papua New Guinea. The data includes well-known plants, common ornamentals, and cultivated plants in different ecological environments of Papua New Guinea.

The format of the data follows existing World Health Organization (WHO) templates used in books such as Medicinal Plants in the South Pacific (1998). Data for one plant include scientific identification or naming of the plant, family name and various names people in different places use for the same plant, and the common English names. This data forms important data that all researchers of medicinal plants are expected to collect.

The next set of data includes information about the physical descriptions of the plant, a botanical assay of valuable information about the plant. This information also reveals other related plants under the same family name, with close DNA to species relations.

The habitat of the plant is described in the next section. The information in this section reveals where the plant is found, its natural habitations, and given its uniqueness the place it thrives in plenitude. Plants found in PNG may also be found in other tropical or equatorial areas in the world.

In terms of the scientific evidence of medicinal properties and biological constituents the next two sections cover aspects of chemical constituents and what these plants are used for in medical treatment and development of drugs for specific medical conditions. For example, the plant Adenanthera pavonina L, known to most people as red bead tree or bead tree contains the chemicals Lipids, chalcone, robinetins, loutein, empelopsin and others is useful as an antibacterial, haemaglutinin, and weak cytotoxic. This information is scientific evidence provided by other researchers in the world who have already screened and studied the chemical constituents and biological activities of the plants. The information assembled here is based on published research and scientific study of the plants in the past. If there no data is available for a plant it either means that the plant has never been studied for its chemistry or its biological activity. That means that the plant is a new unknown plant only found in data bank of traditional medicinal practitioners of a particular society.  In the case of Papua New Guinea if no information is available then that plant could reveal new information under careful scientific study.

The information on the uses of plants in traditional Papua New Guinean societies is provided in the next section. The data here also reveals where a plant is used, for what medical conditions it is used for, which parts of a plant are used, and the methods of preparation in traditional medical treatment. If the plant is used with other plants this information is also given in this section. During the primary plant collection research this information is carefully recorded and prepared so that its traditional uses are documented with accuracy.

The final section, of the data on a medicinal plant is the list of references where scientific data are drawn from. This information is important to the researcher. The authority of the data on medicinal uses of plants was first produced in the publications listed here. For example there are three references listed for the plant Clematis clemenciae of the Ranunculaceae family. The listed references are David Holsworth and Wamoi B, who first published their finding in the International Journal of Crude Drug Research (1982); David K. Holsworth’s earlier publication Medicinal Plants of Papua New Guinea (1977), which served as the primary data for this plant. The same data was also published in the Traditional Medicine Database (2002) set up in the PNG National Department of Health. 

The principle researchers of UPNG who put together this publication must be congratulated for bringing this book out to the public.

Apart from those named above, there are several committed professionals I have worked with in research on traditional medicinal plants and their uses, who are also named in this book, especially Mr. Pius Piskaut and Dr. Osea Gideon of the Natural and Physical Sciences Herbarium of the University of Papua New Guinea. These two professionals have made countless research trips around the country, spent endless hours in their laboratory treating and identifying the scientific names and biological properties of plants brought in from the fields, and who are without doubt indispensible in this area of research. I have relied on them on many of my own research materials on medicinal plants. As is noted here Pius Piskaut and Professor Prem Rai are also credited for the excellent photographs of the plants used in this publications.

Thank you World Health Organization for publishing this important book on traditional medicinal plants in PNG.

Students in biology, biochemistry, pharmacy, medicine, and ethnobotany will find this book useful. Others interested in plants and their medicinal uses in Papua New Guinea will also find this book handy.

The book is available at the UPNG Bookshop.


  1. Hi Steven,

    Thank you for publishing this article. I am interested to have a copy of the book on Medicinal Plants of PNG. Are they for sale as well? Does the book mentioned anything about the soursop (graviola) plant in PNG? We have a lot of soursop in PNG and it is a miraclous plant according to studies done on it by other scientists in the world. Our ancestors have been using this plant's leaves, bark and fruit to treat certain conditions and up to today it is still useful to our people in PNG, especially in rural areas where mordern medicines cannot be afforded by our people.

    Thank you again for the effort by the hardworking people involved which resulted in this book being published.

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