Lāʻau Lapaʻau
I paʻa ke kino o ke keiki i ka lāʻau.
That the body of the child be solidly built by the medicines.
— (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1252)

Let’s talk story about … lāʻau lapaʻau!

What would you do if you had a cut on your finger? Would you wash it and apply an ointment? Then wrap a band-aid around it? Did you know that you can actually use plants to do the same thing? If you were to use lāʻau (plants), you would probably gather some comfrey leaves first. Then make a soft mixture out of the leaves. This is called a poultice. After that, the green, soupy poultice is applied to the cut, then wrapped in plastic wrap. The comfrey binds the slice on your finger. It also heals the cut the same way an antiseptic ointment would.

What is lāʻau lapaʻau?

Lāʻau lapaʻau is medicine made from plants. It is used to treat people who are sick or injured, and it heals the mind, body, and spirit. People gather lāʻau from the ʻāina (land) or kai (ocean) to make their medicine. Some lāʻau are grown in the backyard.

How did lāʻau lapaʻau start?

We have several moʻolelo (stories) that tell us where some of our earliest lāʻau lapaʻau teachings come from. Some say Lonopūhā was the first to practice healing with lāʻau in Hawaiʻi, and the first to found a school in this discipline. In several versions of the moʻolelo, Lono stabs himself in the foot and someone helps to heal him. Lono learns the healing arts from that person. In one moʻolelo, that person is the god Kāne. In another, it is Kamakanuiʻāhaʻilono, who is a god in some versions and a kahuna in others. The foot accident that led Lono on his path to lāʻau lapaʻau was memorialized in the name Lono was later called: Lonopūhā (“pūhā” is an open sore or a swollen area with puss). Lonopūhā was also called a kahuna hāhā, as he was able to expertly diagnose illnesses by feeling—hāhā—the patient’s body with his fingertips.

Some people believe Kū and Hina are the original gods of healing because they are often prayed to when gathering lāʻau. There are other akua and ʻaumākua who were prayed to for healing, and all of them probably had a role in sharing this knowledge or in bringing about the lāʻau itself.

Some stones and islets were also believed to have healing powers. Four stones still resting in Waikīkī were infused with the healing power of four lapaʻau experts from Moaʻulanuiākea. Several hundred years ago, Kapaemāhū, Kahaloa, Kapuni, and Kinohi came to live at Ulukou, Waikīkī, near what is now the Moana Hotel. They performed wonderful feats of healing and taught others, and their fame spread across the land. Before leaving Hawaiʻi, they each transferred their power into a stone, and the healing stones were left for our people. With the passing of hundreds of years, the stones were mistreated by some. They were used in the foundation of a bowling alley, and as picnic tables and towel drying racks by some beachgoers. Fortunately the stones now have a safe home in Waikīkī, and their story is again being spread of the gift of healing that was shared.

What kind of person is allowed to practice lapaʻau?

Professionals in any field are called kāhuna, like those mentioned earlier. Their field of expertise comes after the word “kahuna.”

Most kāhuna lāʻau lapaʻau were handpicked and trained at a very young age by an experienced kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau. They were taught how to gather plants and minerals, the correct pule (prayer) to use, and the right rituals connected to healing the patient. This training would prepare the young student to someday become a kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau. It was an honor to be chosen. This type of training could last as long as 20 years.

ʻOhana used lāʻau lapaʻau daily. Families would use it to treat minor ailments. They would visit a kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau only if the family could not treat the patient’s illness on their own. Lāʻau was also used as a way to prevent future illnesses. Keiki (children) learned to be self-sufficient. If they became ill, keiki would gather plants to treat themselves. If the child could not heal herself, then a family member would mālama (care for) her.

Lāʻau lapaʻau practitioners in the ʻohana are like today’s family doctors who are intimately familiar with patients and their families. They know the family history, how a patient lives, the kinds of foods the patient eats that could have caused the illness, and whether the patient’s feelings and thoughts could be contributing to the illness. 

There were other kinds of healing experts, like the kahuna lāʻau kāhea who specialized in bone setting. To graduate, they would have to break a bone of a family member, then set it perfectly into place.

What kinds of sicknesses are there?

Our kūpuna believed that there were three types of maʻi (sicknesses)—maʻi of the body, maʻi from external forces, and maʻi from within the living ʻohana. Bodily ailments are what most medical doctors today treat. Maʻi from external forces were from gods, spirits, or curses. Maʻi from within the ʻohana could be due to hurt feelings from a family quarrel or disagreement. If lāʻau did not cure the sickness, then the maʻi was believed to have been from within or without the ʻohana. For those kinds of maʻi, certain pule and restorative processes were used. 

How do we gather lāʻau?

Lāʻau practitioners must gather herbs with a loving heart. Any negative thoughts will be transferred to the plant. Good intentions are a must. Practitioners will say a pule before they gather. This will set their heart and mind in the right space. It will prepare them to gather the herbs with plenty of aloha. Here is a pule used in gathering lāʻau for an eye condition:

I hele mai nei au e noi iā ʻoe, e Kāneikapōpolo I have come here to request you, O Kāneikapōpolo
I lāʻau e ola ai ka maka o (Mea)Medicine that (so-and-so’s) eyes may be healed
I ulu i lunaThat grew above
I kū i lunaThat stood above
I lālā i lunaThat branched above
I liko i lunaThat budded and leafed above
I ʻōpū i lunaThat opened its flowers above
I mohala i lunaThat full-bloomed above
I pua i lunaThat flowered above
I hua a oʻo i lunaThat bore fruit and matured above
I pala i lunaThat ripened above
ʻO ke ola o ka lāʻau āu, a Kāne,Grant the healing power of your medicine, O Kāne,
no ka maka o (Mea). ʻĀmama.for (so-and-so’s) eyes. It is finished.


What are some common lāʻau that can be used to maintain health and treat ailments?

There are many plants used for lāʻau lapaʻau. The practitioner will use all or some of the plant. Medicine can be made from the roots, stems, flowers, leaves, seeds, bark, or fruit. Many of the plants are used to keep the body healthy and to prevent sickness. Kukui is one example. It is used to keep the skin soft and prevent dryness. The nut is roasted and the meat removed. The oil from the crushed meat can be rubbed into the skin. Mothers will often prepare kukui oil for their newborns. They rub the oil into the skin of the baby. This prevents the skin from flaking. It also keeps it soft and moist.

ʻŌlena, or turmeric, is a type of lāʻau. It grows and looks like the ginger root. The root is harvested and can be eaten raw, dried, ground into a powder, or made into a liquid call a tincture. ʻŌlena helps reduce swelling. Many people who suffer from arthritis take ʻōlena because it helps stop the swelling of joints.

Wai niu, or coconut milk, is known to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney and liver trouble.

Two of the most important ingredients used in lāʻau lapaʻau are paʻakai (salt) and ʻalaea (red clay). These two ingredients are often combined with other lāʻau as part of the treatment.

How do we use traditional lāʻau in our ʻohana today?

There are ʻohana and kānaka who still practice lāʻau lapaʻau. Many of the ʻohana practitioners have been taught by their kūpuna. Others have learned the healing art through trained practitioners, and only a few graduate to become lāʻau practitioners themselves.

What does your family do when you are sick? Ask your kupuna. They may have a healthy lāʻau recipe to share with you!