The Story Behind the
Philippine Medicinal Plant Compilation
Godofredo U. Stuart Jr. MD
This compilation on Philippine medicinal plants is an accident. It started with no noble intention. Perhaps, the noble intention—the dream —was to build a small school house at the peak of family land in Tiaong, Quezon. We were to call it: Liceo Pulang Lupa. It was 1998. It was a time of seeming resurgence of passions in the youth clamoring for change in a country long mired in corruption. Tippling through jiggers of lambanog, I was convinced a revolution was underway, the winds of change were blowing, simmering with La Sallites, Ateneans, and UP activism. It was time to come back, to be part of it. A year or two into the construction of Pulang Lupa, the school dream died—a parting of visions. The winds of change died, too.
What remained was the Pulang Lupa project—I continued to build. . . and build . . and haven't stopped. In those early years, I was slowly being drawn to the idea of returning for good, rather than the earlier intention of dividing my time between the Philippines and Baltimore. The lingering memories of childhood spent in Tiaong—my birthplace—the familiar culture, the new possibilities and challenges that teased nudged me to return. The visits became re-immersions into rural culture, rife with creatures of folklore (the capre, white ladies, duwendes, tikbalangs, and the nuno-sa-punso), teeming with superstitions, rich in rituals, celebrations, and alternative healing ways.
Although versed in western medicine, I have long been attuned to alternative and complementary medicine. Tiaong was a window to a fascinating world of Philippine alternative medicine, rich in lore and religiosity, and malady-causing mythological creatures. The town became a school and I the avid student, observing the healing ways of albularyos, hilots and medicos, the fringe modalities of anting-antings, orasyons and bulongs, and their use of medicinal plants for day-to-day maladies. My daily hikes from down the village to the construction site at the peak was a primer on a flora of mostly unfamiliar trees, plants, and flowers—my guide calling out names, even folkloric medicinal uses of some.
Around that time, I read of Dr. Flavier's TAMA endorsement of 10 Philippine medicinal plants: akapulko, ampalaya, bawang, bayabas, lagundi, niyog-niyogan, pansit-pansitan, sambong, tsaang-gubat, and yerba-buena. It jump-started my interest in medicinal plants and immersion into Philippine alternative medicine. When I returned to Baltimore, I set up the StuartXchange website and started with pages on alternative medicine with a short list of medicinal plants.
Early on, as the compilation trudged along, new plant additions were few and far in-between. Then I came upon Dr Eduardo Quisumbing's Medicinal Plants of the Philippines, which provided information on botany, folkloric uses, and a modicum of basic phytoconstituents,. Shortly after, I stumbled on Dr Domingo Madulid's Pictorial Cyclopedia of Philippine Ornamental Plants. (Sources) While neither contained scientific studies, both were a rich trove of vernacular and scientific names, which provided the essential information to initiate a search for scientific and medicinal studies.
As the list grew, I kept resetting goals—50 to 100 to 300 to 500 to 700 to . . . I was repeatedly advised: "Enough." But as the list grew, so did the emails of appreciation from students, researchers, teachers, doctors, healers. alternativists, plant lovers, weekend gardeners, herbal entrepreneurs, and even chefs, delighted by the edibility information. As the list grew, so did my obsession—spending four to eight hours a day, sifting through the web for botanical information and scientific studies, searching and photographing vines, flowers,,weeds, leaves and trees, hiking through forests and scaling hills, knocking on doors and intruding on gardens, pulling over whenever and wherever an unfamiliar tree or flower beckons. . . every new find always a "eureka" moment.
And there have been thousands of other eureka moments that came while updating the plants pages for scientific studies, frequent moments of wonderment as so many plants are revealed to have a boggling spectrum of biologic activities: antioxidant, antiulcer, anticancer, antidiabetic, antiviral, anti-dengue, antimalarial, antibacterial, anti-almost-anything-and-everything. Searching through and extracting from tens of thousands of abstracts and PDFs have revealed a plant world of unbelievable potential to provide for many of the preventive and healing needs of humankind. Alas, in this age of big pharma and the commerce of healthcare, pharmaceuticals and white-cioat medicine win, hands down, over medicinal plants.
When I returned in 2003—for good—after pulling out stakes in Baltimore, I wanted to devote part of my time to teaching clinical medicine; perhaps, even a course that would merge western medicine with Philippine alternative medicine. That too did not happen—I stayed with the plants, and, perhaps, for the best. The emails, web use and attributions suggest the plant materia medica is more far-reaching and a more lasting way of teaching, albeit, hermitic and faceless. At the same time, in my practice of pro bono medicine and the accumulating knowledge on medicinal plants, I had the serendipitous opportunity to merge western medicine and pharmaceutical therapies with medicinal plants, supplements, and local healing modalities.
Alas, eureka moments and letters that delight have been tempered by discrepant observations. Of the more than a thousand Philippine medicinal plants in the compilation, so few of the tens of thousands of studies were done in the Philippines. Institutional medicine has a gnawing disdain and distrust for alternative medicine. While rare is the physician who would give medicinal plants the time of day, it comes from ignorance rather than educated opinion.
But even in the province of alternative medicine, there is a growing national disinterest in medicinal plant use. The albularyos seem to be a slowly disappearing breed of healers. Among the medicos I have seen an increasing use of pharmaceuticals, steroids, and antibiotics. Even among the rural folk with their potpouri of hand-me-down therapies, there has been a shift toward the unprescribed use of pharmaceuticals.
But while alternative medicine and plant use flounders in the rural areas, herbal medicinal plants thrive well in the commerce of supplements that lure customers with radio and TV adverts laced with come-on words like antioxidant, pure, holistic, rejuvenating, 100% natural, energy or immune boosting—some as slimiy as snake oil. Alas, my medicinal plant compilation has been used in the commerce of herbal supplements, luring customers with promises of health, cure and longevity. The most egregious, a
Fast Forward 2021
While some say "enough", I parry with "why not more?" There are hundreds—perhaps, a thousand or more—of nameless trees, shrubs and flowers waiting to be discovered, many of which I am certain will prove to have medicinal value. And there are many more in the dustbin of unstudied and understudied plants, stagnating in anonymity and academic neglect, waiting to be unearthed, rooted out, and revealed of their medicinal benefits.
Some concerned site users and herbalists who visit Pulang Lupa ihave asked if the compilation and site could just suddenly disappear from the internet. Also, some ask—what will happen to the compilation when I am gone (I hope that is still in some distant future). I have been told, warmed, it will likely come to a dead end, or, perhaps, at best, it will survive as a stagnant out-dated reference volume of Philippine medicinal plants.
While I ponder that often enough, I remain hopeful there will be kindred spirits who will find the work a worthwhile endeavor to continue.
For now, let me go back to work. Plants are waiting.
Updated Aug 2021
|List of Understudied Philippine Medicinal Plants|