The Secrets of Solomon Islands: exploring medicinal plant knowledge in the south Pacific

By Matthew Bond

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When surveying plant diversity in the cloud forest, clear days are rare! This panorama looks down on the Lau Lagoon from the entrance to the cloud forest

Have you ever dreamed of packing a bag and moving to a tropical island in an exotic, far-away country? Well, that’s exactly what I’m doing for ten months. Although I’ve been living in Solomon Islands for six months now, every day is full of new surprises.

Aloha! My name is Matthew Bond. I’m a botany Ph.D. Student at the University of Hawai‘i and a member of the SEB student committee. I study how people use plants for medicine. The World Health Organization estimates that for every five people in the world, four use medicinal plants in their raw form. People who use pills as medicine also rely on plants, since about one quarter of commercial medicines are made with chemicals extracted from plants

IMG_4630Fred demonstrating how to collect a medicinal plant we found while walking through a mangrove swamp

Although medicinal plants are clearly important for our health, there are still many questions about them that have not been answered. For example, how do people choose what plants to use for medicine? I want to know how people look at the environments around them and decide which plants to use for medicine and how to collect these plants (for example, using the bark rather than the leaves).

On this trip to Solomon Islands I am testing how medicinal plant knowledge is affected by local plants and diseases, the interactions people have with these plants and diseases, and the interactions people have with each other.To do this, I’m comparing the medicinal plant knowledge of every adult in four subsistence villages.In each village, I conduct personal interviews, group interviews, clinic interviews, plant biodiversity surveys, and plant collection walks.

IMG_9429_editedA friend I made while interviewing (kekero, yellow-bibbed lory, Loriuschlorocercus)

None of these tasks is as simple or uneventful as it sounds. For example, one morning I was interviewing a man, and during the interview he was playing with his kekero (a colorful native bird). Just as the interview was about to finish, the bird suddenly attacked my toes violently enough to draw blood. The next day, after an interview on the other side of the village, I saw a different kekero fly into the tree that we were talking under. I was on my guard this time, but the bird only wanted to use me and my hat as a jungle gym.

3IMG_3748_editedMary making roof panels from thau leaves (sago palm, Metroxylon sagu). Almost everything here is made directly from plants, including houses!

This work is important because it will help us to understand how people in any culture or environment select medicinal plants. This research explores how plants, and humans, and their environments affect one another, and may also help us to develop new medicines. It will also help us predict and respond to present and future environmental changes and health concerns.

IMG_4323Honey, I shrunk the botanist! I found this kakake (giant swamp taro, Cyrtospermamerkusii) on a plant collecting walk. The tuber of this plant is commonly eaten during celebrations or famines.

For more details about my work, pictures, and stories of my adventures in Solomon Islands (like living in a treehouse, exploring caves, sleeping on cargo ships, or eating lizards) follow my twitter and blog.

4 thoughts on “The secret of Solomon Islands: exploring medicinal plant knowledge in the south Pacific

  1. Great post and I look forward to hearing more about your research.

    One point of clarification: the WHO study you cite actually stated that 80% of the developing world’s population was reliant on medicinal plants for their primary health care, not 80% of the total world’s population. If WHO is correct in their guesstimate, this would be about 2/3 of the world’s population.

    Like

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