Five plants which really stood out for me on my travels in Bali and Thailand were Galangal, Tamarind, Aloe Vera, Papaya Leaf, and Gotu Kola. I had the pleasure of using some of these herbs at different points to heal from my own tropical misadventures and had so much fun trying different herbal therapies and techniques. I will share with you some of the medicinal uses and preparation techniques to try from home.
One thing to note is that every country or area you go to in your travels will have their own unique remedies and favorite plants, so always seek out local knowledge and ask for guidance before harvesting or making your medicine.
Galangal is found throughout the tropical regions of Southeast Asia and the tropics, and there are many different species. A cousin of ginger, this spicy root has many healing properties. In Bali, Galangal is added to a warming and virility-stimulating, immune-boosting drink called Jamu. Jamu is usually a combination of Tumeric, Galangal, Ginger and Tamarind blended with water and cooked with coconut sugar. Jamu helps to increase circulation and warmth throughout the body, whilst also supporting the body's immune defenses.
Another use for Galangal is a paste with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and rice called Boreh, which can be used to stimulate the skin, reduce muscle pain, fight colds and flus, and warm the body. When a small amount of the paste is applied onto a point on the body, you can feel the heat. One pea size blob of past applied to the third eye and one on each temples is a cure for headaches. Galangal has warming, drying, and fiery qualities, it increases blood circulation and is also anti-bacterial and anti-viral.
The second herb which drew my attention was Tamarind, such a beautiful and graceful tree with soft feather leaves and a big seed pod with a tangy orange fruit.
In Thailand, I worked with Tamarind leaf with a traditional midwife, and she taught me that Tamarind leaves added to an herbal body steam helps to cleanse the blood. After giving birth women in Thailand would traditionally wash with an infused tamarind leaf water, which is believed to help to release any trapped amniotic fluids or remaining blood and placenta from the womb. Tamarind fruit is sweet and sour which is cooling and balancing for the nervous system. In Bali, Tamarine fruit is added to the health drink Jamu for its anti-inflammatory properties. Tamarind helps to stimulate digestion, support the liver and can relieve constipation due to its dietary fiber content.
Not only is papaya fruit delicious and easily digestible, and its seeds antiparasitic, it turns out the leaves are a well-known remedy for Dengue fever. I was unfortunate enough to come down with the mosquito-borne disease which lasts for about 6-7 days and consists of a high fever, rash, and low platelet count. Papaya leaf is blended with water and strained as a green juice which is extremely bitter and cooling. This helps to reduce fever and encourage elimination through sweating and the bowels. It is a very strong tasting leaf which I found to be absolutely disgusting and hard to force down, but studies have been conducted on its ability to help rebuild blood platelet counts as this is a real risk in Dengue. It has also been studied as a remedy for malaria and drunk as a herbal tonic for general health in South-East Asia.
Aloe vera is used pretty commonly throughout the world and grows in most tropical areas. Every family will have a plant growing in pots in the garden in Thailand and Bali. Aloe vera is one of the most soothing plants due to its high content of mucilage. Mucilage helps to soothe the skin and regenerate inflamed, dry or cracked skin. The cooling properties of Aloe vera are amazing, it can penetrate and soothe all three layers of the skin. In Bali, I made a blended aloe vera and corn skin mask to tonify and draw toxins out of the skin. Firstly, the outside skin of the aloe vera is peeled off, and the soft inside is blended with a small handful of fresh corn and water. This forms a juice which is applied to the skin and allowed to dry before it is peeled off. This helps to seal the skin and draw out toxins, it also smooths out the skin.
Gotu kola grows wild throughout the tropics and is a delicate little groundcover which is delicious fresh in salads and is also drunk frequently as a tonic tea. Gotu kola has a very famous reputation as being a longevity herb which promotes youth and vitality. In western herbalism it is known as an adaptogen which helps the body to adapt to stress. Gotu kola is a circulatory stimulant and helps to regenerate skin, speeding up the recovery of stress marks.
There is a saying that if you eat two leaves a day you will live until you’re 200. This might be an exaggeration, but packed with antioxidants and minerals, this little gem is an excellent addition and boost to your daily life.
Keep your eyes out for these five friends next time you're in the Tropics!