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Back to our roots: Traditional Medicine in Sarawak

Did you know that eating black pepper was beneficial for the heart and could help to prevent tooth decay on top of it used widely to season food? How about Serai or lemongrass used as a painkiller?

Sarawak’s forests hold over 1,000 known plant species with medicinal properties. Many of these plants have been traditionally used by various indigenous communities to treat a variety of illnesses.

The traditional medicine practices are easy to learn. Many of the techniques involve pounding the plants’ roots (rhizome) or leaves. This increases their potency. The pounded roots and leaves are then made into a poultice and applied over an affected/injured area on the body.

Let’s look at some common medicinal plants found in our forests and gardens that hold many healing attributes and are used by indigenous communities in Sarawak.

Alpinia galanga

Lengkuas (Malay, Iban), engkuas (Iban), lacos (Bidayuh) and la’ku’er (Kelabit)

This ginger plant (known as galangal in English) is a staple ingredient in many curry dishes. The plant grows up to 1.5 metres tall and is widely cultivated in villages or grown semi-wild near villages. The leaves grow up to 48cm long, 6.5cm wide and are not hairy. Inflorescence at the end of the leaves and up to 28cm long. Flowers are whitish, V-shaped and deep purple at two lower petals.

In traditional medicine, the Iban folks use galangal to remedy itches by means of pounding it along with a bit of salt before applying the mixture onto the skin. To reduce fever, the Bidayuh crush the leaves and stems of the galangal, boil them then use the water to bathe. To help mothers feel vitalised after childbirth, the Kelabit drink galangal tea for energy.

Alpinia galanga use as a traditional medicine in Sarawak

Curcuma domestica

Kunyit (Iban, Kayan, Malay), kunyit likau, kunyit putih, penawar (Melanau)

Turmeric or kunyit is a very common plant found in our rainforests. Cultivated to over one metre tall, turmeric is a ginger plant best characterised by its rhizome of distinctive deep yellow hue and aromatic scent. The leaves are oblong-shaped, varying in size and not hairy. Its flowers are white.

This plant use as a traditional medicine to remedy for many ailments in Sarawak. These include treating skin diseases (Iban), headaches (Melanau), detoxing following childbirth (Iban, Malay), drunkenness and coughing (Melanau) as well as asthma (Kayan).

Curcuma domestica use as a traditional medicine in Sarawak

Manihot esculenta

Ubi, ubi kapok, daun jabang (Iban), daun bandung (Melanau), bandong betawai (Selako), itun obek, ubek kayo (Kayan)

A small shrub that is cultivated, this tapioca plant is locally called bandong or ubi kayu. The young leaves are traditionally eaten as vegetables and are now served even in hotels as ‘ulam ulaman’ (local salad) with sambal belacan (spicy tangy dip made with fermented shrimp paste). The plant is easily propagated by stem cuttings and grows in a variety of soils.

Pounded into a pulp, the leaves can apply as a poultice to mitigate headaches. Bidayuh, Selako and Melanau folks practise this even to this day. The Iban believe that by merely mixing the juices from the leaves with honey and drinking the concoction, their constipation woes will alleviate. Rubbing the latex onto the skin will relieve swelling. It can also use as an antidote against rengas poison. The Kayan folks believe that drinking fresh juice from the leaves will stop hematemesis (vomiting blood). They also believe that rubbing its warm bark onto the skin will relieve pains and itches caused by the hairs of caterpillars. For the Chinese, regular intake of the tapioca leaf tea offers protection against cancer of the colon.

Manihot esculenta use as a traditional medicine in Sarawak

Archidendron jiringa

Jering, buah jering (Iban, Malay)

It is a shrub or medium-sized tree that grows to a height of 12 metres tall. It thrives in secondary forests and is also cultivated. Its leaves pinnate, leaflets lanceolate or elliptic and are often unequal on both sides, with the veins on the leaves raised on both surface. Its fruit pods are irregularly-shaped, flattened, black and hard. The jering fruit can be easily found sold in markets selling local produce.

The Iban and Malay eat jering either cooked or raw, dipping them in shrimp paste sambal. This traditional medicine in Sarawak believe to be good for the kidneys and is a remedy for diabetes. It also enhances urine flow, although the urine passed will have a strong smell. The leaves may also be boiled to make tea. 

Archidendron jiringa can be use as a tradtional medicine in Sarawak

Psidium guajava

Jambu biabas, jambu bata, jambu libas (Iban), jambu berabas, biabas (Malay), biaber, jambu bejabas, jambu ubas (Bidayuh), libo (Kayan), nyibun (Kenyah) and buan libun (Kelabit)

A common evergreen shrub that produces the popular guava fruit, this plant is commonly cultivated in villages or even in urban homes. The guava tree’s bark is light brown and greenish, with a flaky exterior. Its young twigs and leaves have fine hairs and are oval-shaped, with rounded apex up to 14.5cm long and 6cm wide. Its flowers are white and its fruits are round, with very hard seeds embedded in fleshly pulp.

Medicinal uses include treatment for skin diseases such as rashes or ringworm. The Bidayuh use this by pounding the leaves into a paste and spreading it onto the skin. The Iban folks use sap from the leaves to heal open wounds by applying them directly on the affected area. The Iban and Kayan also believe that consuming the guava plant’s young leaves raw may stop diarrhoea. A poultice of the young leaves can used to relieve stomach-ache. The Malay, Kenyah and Kelabit also use the poultice of the young leaves to treat cuts and wounds. The Melanau, meanwhile, boil the leaves of the guava plant and use that to cure boils and scabies. The Selako use the poultice from the young leaves to help relieve headaches. Who would have known that the guava tree is such a panacea for so many illnesses?

Psidium guajava

All plants mentioned in this article can cultivate in your back garden, so the next time you have an ailment, try one of these herbal remedies, courtesy of Mother Nature!


This article from BorneoTalk Vol.47 (page 30). Click here for DOWNLOAD
Click here more about: Sarawak Foods

Source of Information: “Medicinal Plants of Sarawak” by Dr. Paul Chai P.K.
Forestry Department of Sarawak. Retrieved from www.forestry.sarawak.gov.my
Sarawak Cultural Village. Retrieved from www.scv.com.my/products/view/6/traditional-herbal-plant

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