Covering more than 38% of primary forests in Indonesia, West Papua forests is a home for over 20,000 plant species, 602 bird species (including the iconic birds of paradise), 125 mammal species, and 223 reptile species. Forest has been a crucial part for the indigenous of Papua.
The forest provides their food, tools, raw materials for their clothing and houses, and when they get sick local healers would give you concoctions of various herbs from the forest. Some of the herbs are known only to the native Papuans, and others are more widely known and have started to be cultivated outside the island of New Guinea.
This article lists some of the well-known herbs and their health benefits.
Buah merah or red fruit refers to fruits belonging to a plant from the Pandanus family, Pandanus conoideus. The fruit has a long-oval shape up to 55 cm in length with a diameter of between 10-15 cm, weighing 3 kg. Some variants have bright maroon colors when ripe, but brown and yellow variants are not uncommon. The plant lives all over the island, from the lowlands of Manokwari to the mountainous region of Baliem Valley.
While several cultivars hold considerably high market value in West Papua, the one used in traditional medicine is the merah panjang (long red) variant. When used as a food, the fruit was usually served in bakar batu ceremonies. As a traditional medicinal herb, locals consume the fruit’s juice to treat parasitic worm and skin infections, prevent eye problems and increase stamina. Other supposed health benefits from consumption of red fruit includes cancer prevention, maintain vision health, anti-inflammatory, and helps reduce LDL contents.
Akway is a name given to several species of shrubs from the family Winteraceae. The term kayu akway refers to the dried bark of the shrub. In Papua, Akway is native to Manokwari, West Papua, where at least three species have been identified: Drimys winteri WINE, Tasmannia beccariana GIBBS, and Tasmannia piperita HOOK.
Arfak people brew akway bark and chew the softened bark or drink the liquid as herbal tea to increase stamina and boost physical endurance during a long journey. The tea would also often be used to relieve joint pain and helps reduce menstrual pain. Elda Kristiani Paisey, a lecturer from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Papua, wrote that akway contains several chemical compounds known to increase virility for men.
Though the name sarang semut in Indonesian means “anthill”, this herb is not an actual anthill. It is an Indonesian phrase to refer to several plants from the genus Myrmecodia, ant-plant genera in the family Rubiaceae native to Southeast Asia. An epiphytic plant that rooted itself in a host tree, its’ unique evolutionary trait to naturally produces a tunnel system inside it’s large, tuberous stems is the source of the name sarang semut—its’ cross-section resembles an ant tunnel. Of 26 species found in Indonesia, 15 species are spread across Papua and West Papua.
Compared to the herbs mentioned above, sarang semut is more widely known and promoted as a medicinal herb. The dried stems can be found easily in markets and e-commerce. There are also capsules made from ground dried stems. It can be eaten as it is, and the dried stem can be brewed as herbal tea.
Consuming this unusual plant would give various health benefits. The high flavonoid contents in the plant help hinder the development of cancer cells and reduce carcinogenic activities. It can also help increasing insulin production, reducing the risk of diabetes. Flavonoids, tocopherol, and various antioxidants in the plant also act as xanthine enzyme inhibitors, which are good for relieving rheumatism.