Lāʻau Lapaʻau
I paʻa ke kino o ke keiki i ka lāʻau.
That the body of the child be solidly built by the medicines.
A mother ate herbs during pregnancy and nursing for the sake of the baby's health.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1252

Let’s talk story about … lāʻau lapaʻau!

What would you do if you got a cut on your finger? Would you wash it and apply ointment? Then put on a Band-Aid? Did you know that you can actually use plants to heal wounds?

 

If you were to use lāʻau (plants), you would probably first gather some comfrey leaves. Then you would make a soft mixture out of the leaves. This is called a poultice. The green poultice is applied to the cut, then wrapped in plastic. The comfrey binds the skin together. It heals the cut the same way an antiseptic ointment does.

What is lāʻau lapaʻau?

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


How did lāʻau lapaʻau start?

Some moʻolelo (stories) say Lonopūhā was the first to practice healing with lāʻau in Hawaiʻi, and the first to found a school in this discipline. In several moʻolelo, Lono stabs himself in the foot and learns the healing arts from the person who heals him. 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 was memorialized in a 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 establishing the lāʻau in Hawaiʻi.

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. They 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. They were used in the foundation of a bowling alley, as picnic tables, and as towel-drying racks by beachgoers. Fortunately the stones now have a safe home in Waikīkī, and their story of the gift of healing is again being shared.

Who is allowed to practice lapaʻau?

Professionals in any field are called kāhuna. When referring to these professionals, their field of expertise follows the word “kahuna.” Kāhuna lāʻau lapaʻau are expert healers.

Most kāhuna lāʻau lapaʻau were handpicked and trained at a young age by an experienced kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau. They were taught how to gather plants and minerals, how to offer the correct pule (prayers), and how to perform the right rituals to heal 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 twenty years.

ʻOhana used lāʻau lapaʻau daily. Families would use it to treat minor ailments and prevent future illnesses. Keiki (children) learned to be self-sufficient. If a keiki became ill, she would gather plants to treat herself. If she could not heal herself, then a family member would mālama (care for) her. The ʻohana would visit a kahuna lāʻau lapaʻau only if they could not treat the illness on their own.

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


There were various kinds of healing experts. For example, kāhuna lāʻau kāhea 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 recognized three kinds of maʻi (sickness)—maʻi of the body, maʻi from external forces, and maʻi from within the ʻohana. Bodily maʻi are physical ailments and are what most medical doctors today treat. Maʻi from external forces could be from gods, spirits, or curses. Maʻi from within the ʻohana could be from hurt feelings over a family quarrel or disagreement. If lāʻau did not cure a person’s sickness, then the maʻi was believed to have been from external forces or from within the ʻohana. For those kinds of maʻi, certain pule and restorative processes were used.

How do we gather lāʻau?

For a lāʻau practitioner, herbs must be gathered with a loving heart. Otherwise, negative thoughts are transferred to the plant. Good intentions are a must. Practitioners always say a pule before they gather. This sets their heart and mind in the right space. Pule prepares 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 to maintain health and treat ailments?

There are many plants used for lāʻau lapaʻau. The practitioner uses all or some of the plant. Medicine can be made from roots, stems, flowers, leaves, seeds, bark, and fruit.


Lāʻau are used to keep the body healthy and 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 the skin 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. It can also be dried, ground into a powder, or made into a liquid called a tincture. ʻŌlena helps reduce swelling. Many people who suffer from arthritis take ʻōlena because it helps to ease swelling in their 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 is traditional lāʻau practiced 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. Only a few graduate to become lāʻau practitioners.

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