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Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture

Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture by Michael J. Balick and collaborators. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press; 2009. Softcover; 583 pages. ISBN 978-0-8248-3293-3. $28.00.

In their overview, noted ethnobotanist Michael Balick and co-authors David Lorence, Dana Lee Ling, and Wayne Law introduce rather concisely the culture, geography, people, and terrain, major crops and vegetation types of Pohnpei, a Micronesian island of some 30,000 plant-friendly inhabitants. One might say that many of these inhabitants, like Ethnobotany of Pohnpei’s multiple authors, are all ethnobotanists, interested in the various uses for plants.

The authors, acknowledging that they are simply messengers, repeat that the data they present are the products of “thousands of Pohnpeian ‘scientists’ that [sic] preceded” them. In cataloguing many classes of banana (Musa spp., Musaceae), Lois Englberger, Adelino Lorens, Amy Lavendusky, and Jeff Daniells single out one of the banana cultivars (called ‘Karat’) as about 100 times richer in beta-carotene than most commercial bananas marketed in the United States and the United Kingdom. But they tabulate data on the ‘Utin Iap’ cultivar with 1250 mcg/100g, the richest tabulated for beta-carotene. It is also one of the more productive bananas (some bunches weighing around 100 pounds).

Bill Raynor, Lorens, and Jackson Phillip, in a well-illustrated chapter, elaborate on yams (Dioscorea spp., Dioscoreaceae) and their traditional culture, seasonality, their importance to the citizenry, and even tabulate 179 varieties, in addition to discussing trellis alternatives and providing a summary of diseases that yams are prescribed to treat.

In another nicely illustrated and interesting chapter, Englberger, Kiped Albert, Lorens, and Amy Levendusky, address the “taro” (spanning 4 genera in the Araceae).

I was very interested in Balick and Roberta Lee’s chapter on sakau or kava kava (Piper methysticum, Piperaceae) especially since a friendly physician was against my taking kava for peripheral neuropathy and concomitant depression. (I suspect the physician read and believed some of the poorly documented reports of kava-associated hepatotoxicity.) Balick and integrative physician Lee do mention the real but reversible kava dermopathy which has been recognized since the days of Captain Cook’s second voyage: “The skin dries up and exfoliates in little scales.” Between 1990 and 2006, over 80 cases of kava-related hepatotoxicity were reported, says the book, but only 5 of these were clearly causally related, according to an expert in hepatotoxicity. The authors’ conclusion of the kava chapter spans from its divine origin and revered status in Pohnpeian traditional culture to its modern-day use in sacred ritual and recreational activity. “[S] akau is without doubt the most important plant on Pohnpei.” Then Lee solos on a short chapter, “Traditional Medicine, Pohnpei, and Its Integration.”

Then follows a multi-authored chapter: “Local Uses of Plants and Fungi on Pohnpei.” Yes, this was the chapter that this compulsive compiler was most anxious to see. I am always tempted, as a chronic compiler, to dig in and see what any beautifully illustrated ethnoflora could add to my formatted text on 3,000 medicinal plants. Alphabetically, first is Abelmoschus moschatus (Malvaceae), the musk okra, for which I already had about 130 colloquial names from around the world. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae) account alone adds 9 common names and a couple of indications, when I already had more than 250.

I get the despairing and eerie feeling that when I finish (one does not finish studying medicinal plants, thank goodness), all plants will have been reportedly used for at least one ailment. But all plant species have hundreds of phytochemicals already known to your genes, and some already have 5,000 phytochemicals, almost all with many biological activities. But 3 species seemed to have the most medicinal information in this great book, and they are the sacred sakau, the famous noni (Morinda citrifolia, Rubiaceae), and the more obscure Premna serratifolia (Verbenaceae). Hundreds of medicinal uses were mentioned, among food plants and crops, spices, and plants important in craftsmanship, ornament, and other utilities.

The traditional Pohnpei diet was once comprised mainly of cooked starchy staples, such as breadfruit (Artocarpus spp., Moraceae), banana, and taro (Colocasia spp, Araceae) (why not yam?) with fish and other seafood. Other fruits and sugarcane are eaten as occasional snacks. Diabetes and hypertension were once unusual on the island, but after World War II, imported foods gradually rose to about three-quarters of the diet, and statistics on cancer, cardiopathy, diabetes, and obesity worsened rapidly. Almost all my ethnobotanical friends can recount similar episodes from their lifetime of observation: native diets lost to an American-like processed diet, and native health lost to diseases related to diet-induced obesity and diabetes and ultimately cardiopathy.

Perhaps uniquely, this book is truly a community ethnobotanical effort, guided by Traditional Leaders. People in each of the 5 kingdoms on Pohnpei participated in the inventories. The project focused on 3 objectives: (1) Cataloguing the agrobiodiversity information on traditional and currently grown cultivars. Yes—cultivar diversity is diminishing, with only a handful of cultivars persisting today with traditional cultivation methods, some still utilized, others forgotten; (2) Of even greater interest to me was the well-rounded ethnobotanical inventory of plants used for food, medicine, construction of homes, boats, smaller artifacts, and in rituals and spiritual belief systems. Much of this was gathered by the Pohnpeian team, who are all recognized as coauthors of the book; and (3) A provisional checklist of the flora of Pohnpei, the first in contemporary times, that contains information on species status as endemic, introduced, invasive, etc. These goals were well met.

Significantly, this great book is copyrighted by the Mwoalen Wahu Ileilehn Pohnpei, the Pohnpei Council of Traditional Leaders. This publication then at once documents proof of prior art and prior knowledge, thus helping to protect the intellectual property rights of the Pohnpeian people. We have been artfully apprized of the utility of plant species to Pohnpeian people. Let us hope it will stimulate the preservation of this great society and their flora and fauna and culture.

—James A. Duke, PhD Botanical Consultant, Economic Botanist (USDA, ret.) Fulton, MD