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The Story Behind the
Philippine Medicinal Plant Compilation
Godofredo U. Stuart Jr. MD

This compilation on Philippine medicinal plants is an accident. It started with no noble intention. Perhaps, the noble intention—the dream —was to build a small school house at the peak of family land in Tiaong. We were to call it: Liceo Pulang Lupa. It was 1998. It was a time of seeming resurgence of passions and clamor for change. Tippling through jiggers of lambanog, I was convinced a revolution was underway, the winds of change were blowing, simmering with La Sallites, Ateneans, and UP activism. It was time to come back, to be part of it. A year or two into the construction of Pulang Lupa, the school dream died—a parting of visions. The winds of change died, too.

What remained was the Pulang Lupa project—I continued to build. . . and haven't stopped. In those early years, I was slowly being drawn to the idea of returning for good, rather than the earlier intention of dividing my time between the Philippines and Baltimore. The lingering memories of childhood spent in Tiaong—my birthplace—the familiar culture, the new possibilities and challenges that teased, nudged me to return. The visits became re-immersions into rural culture, rife with folklore and superstitions, rituals and celebrations, and their healing ways.

Although versed in western medicine, I have been long attuned to alternative and complementary medicine. Tiaong was a window to a fascinating world of Philippine alternative medicine, rich in lore and religiosity, and malady-causing mythological creatures. The town became a school and I the avid student, observing the healing ways of albularyos, hilots and medicos, the fringe modalities of antings, orasyons and bulongs, and their use of medicinal plants. My daily hikes from down the village to the construction site at the peak was a primer on a flora of mostly unfamiliar trees, plants, and flowers—my guide calliing out names, even folkloric medicinal uses for a few.

Around that time, I read of Dr. Flavier's TAMA endorsement of 10 Philippine medicinal plants: akapulko, ampalaya, bawang, bayabas, lagundi, niyog-niyogan, pansit-pansitan, sambong, tsaang-gubat, and yerba-buena. It jump-started my interest in medicinal plants and immersion into Philippine alternative medicine. When I returned to Baltimore, I set up the StuartXchange website and started with pages on alternative medicine with a short list of medicinal plants.

Early on, as the compilation trudged along, new plant additions were few and far in-between. Then I came upon Dr Eduardo Quisumbing's Medicinal Plants of the Philippines, which provided information on botany, basic constituents, and folkloric uses. Shortly after, I stumbled on Dr Domingo Madulid's Pictorial Cyclopedia of Philippine Ornamental Plants. (Sources) While neither contained scientific studies, both were a rich trove of vernacular and scientific names, which provided the essential snippet of information to initiate a search for scientific and medicinal studies.

As the list grew, I kept resetting goals, from a 100 to 300 to 500 to 700 to . . . I was repeatedly advised: "Enough." But as the list grew, so did the emails of appreciation and thank-you's from students, researchers, teachers, doctors, healers. alternativists, plant lovers, weekend gardeners, herbal entrepreneurs, and even chefs. As the list grew, so did my obsession—spending four to eight hours a day sifting through the web for studies, hiking through forests and hills, climbing fences and intruding on gardens searching for plants and flowers, pulling over whenever and wherever an unfamiliar tree or flower beckons. . .every new find always a "eureka" moment.

And there have been thousands of other eureka moments that came while updating the plants pages for scientific studies, frequent moments of wonderment as so many plants are shown to have a wide spectrum of biologic activities: antioxidant, anticancer, antidiabetic, antiviral, anti-dengue, antimalarial, antibacterial, anti-almost-anything-and-everything. Searching through and extracting from tens of thousands of abstracts and PDFs have revealed a plant world of great potential benefit to humankind.

When I returned in 2003—for good—after pulling out stakes in Baltimore, I wanted to devote part of my time to teaching clinical medicine; perhaps, even a course that would merge western medicine with Philippine alternative medicine. That too did not happen. I stayed with the plants. And, perhaps, for the best. The letters, emails, web use and attributions suggest the plant materia medica is more far-reaching and a more lasting way of teaching, albeit hermitic and faceless. By serendipity of pro bono medicine and accumulating knowledge of medicinal plants, I was able to merge pharmaceutical therapies with medicinal plants, supplements, and local healing modalities.

Alas, eureka moments and letters that delight have been tempered by discrepant observations. Of the more than a thousand Philippine medicinal plants in the compilation, so few of the tens of thousands of studies were done in the Philippines. Institutional medicine has a gnawing disdain for alternative medicine. There seems to be a growing national disinterest in medicinal plant use. Even the albularyos seem to be a slowly disappearing breed of healers. Among the medicos I have seen an increasing use of pharmaceuticals, steroids, and antibiotics. However, for various niches of ruralfolk, hand-me-down herbal therapies continue to be mainstay in the treatment of day-to-day maladies.

But while alternative medicine and plant use flounders in the rural areas, herbal medicinal plants thrive well in the commerce of supplements that lure customers with radio and TV adverts laced with come-on words like antioxidant, pure, holistic, rejuvenating, 100% natural, energy or immune boosting, alas, some as slimiy as snake oil. The medicinal plant compilation have been used in the commerce of herbal supplements, hundreds of pages of copy-and-paste abuse, even a plagiarism in-toto of the more than a thousand plants to front a website selling herbal products of dubious claims.

Fast Forward 2021
The compilation now numbers close to 1,200, a 22-year, one-man effort. While the number is cause for amazement, I have the ready spiel: There are about 350,000 plants/trees worldwide (some say much more), 35,000 of which have reported folkloric medicinal use, many with scientific studies—the compilation is a mere drop in the bucket.

While some say "enough", I wonder "why not more?" There are hundreds—perhaps, a thousand or more—of nameless trees, shrubs and flowers waiting to be discovered, many of which I am certain will prove to have medicinal value. And there are many more in the dustbin of unstudied and understudied plants, stagnating in anonymity and academic neglect, waiting to be studied.

I have been asked what will happen to the compilation when I am gone. (I hope that is still in some distant future.) I have been told it will likely come to a dead end, or, perhaps, at best, it will continue as a stagnant reference for old plant studies.

It has been a one-man effort of 1,200 plants and 80-plus new plants and a few hundred updates during a 12-month stretch of Covid quarantine. I say that to suggest how easy it has become to create new pages and update the old. I can hope that the work does not have to come to an end, that kindred spirits can find purpose to continue the work, to seek out the unnamed flora, to scour and sift the web for studies, adding and updating, to keep alive and current this compendium of Philippine medicinal plants.

 

May 20 21

                                                            List of Understudied Philippine Medicinal Plants
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