ECO-SEA: The Ethnobotanical Conservation Organization for South East Asia
Plant Profiles
Garcinia mangostana - Mangosteen

The mangosteen is a small tree native to Malesia with a dense pyramidal crown and heavy dark foliage which grows almost to the ground. This tree is very hard to grow and takes almost fifteen years to fruit. The fruits are round, about 3 in. in diameter and are surrounded by a dark purple, smooth, shiny husk which bleeds a yellow, bitter latex. The thick purple husk is very rich in tannins and is used traditionally to treat people with stomach problems and to control high fevers. The husk has also been used, along with other materials, to dye fabric black. It can also be used as a natural hair dye—it will turn your hair auburn. Because of the high tannin contents, the husk is also used to cure leather.

Syzygium aromaticum - Clove
boat made out of cloves

Native to the Indonesian region of Maluku, clove is an internationally famous spice. In India, Brahmanic texts report that cloves and cardamom seeds wrapped in betel-nut leaves were chewed to increase salivation and aid digestion. Oil of clove has long been used by the natives of the Moluccas (Maluku) as a mild anesthetic, especially for the pain of toothaches. It can also be used to sooth headaches, nausea, flatulence and weak digestion and used as an antirheumatic. A stimulant, it also has antiseptic (germ-fighting), antispasmodic (preventing muscular spasms), and antihistaminic (curing swelling or “stuffiness”) properties. An aid in treating disease of the arteries, cloves are also prescribed to children for diarrhea, cholera, colic, and other childhood illnesses.

Myristica fragrans - Nutmeg

Another famed spice of the Maluku islands is nutmeg. Indonesians use nutmeg to help cure insomnia, mouth sores, stomach disorders, muscle aches, whooping cough, cramping and as a digestive aid. It is also thought to help stop arthritis and to heal sprains. Oil made from nutmeg is applied to the forehead to stop headaches and help babies sleep, and is rubbed all over the body to help retain body heat. Malaysians also rub nutmeg oil on the abdomen to relieve stomachaches.

Believed to have calming properties, the Javanese put nutmeg into drinks, like a warm, cooked mixed drink of nutmeg and banana, given to children to help them relax. In contrast to its sleep inducing properties, another part of nutmeg is used to keep people awake! The Javanese use the mace from the nutmeg in a special “jamu”(or medicine) which is supposed to help students concentrate.

In India nutmeg is a treatment for fevers, diarrhea, intestinal disorders and bad breath. Malay medicine prescribes nutmeg as a post-childbirth tonic, a remedy for overeating, an appetite stimulant, and an antidote to madness and malaria. It alleviates the common cold, kidney ailments, and is used as an aphrodisiac and to decrease inflammation (red, swollen or irritated areas). Known to have hallucinogenic properties (causing visions), nutmeg also relieves convulsions.

Amorphophallus titanum - The Corpse Flower
Amorphophallus titanum - The Corpse Flower

The largest inflorescence in the world (but not the largest flower - that honor goes to Rafflesia (below), this monster grows several yards tall in a matter of days from an underground tuber weighing up to 100 pounds! This species has been called the "Corpse Flower" because of the stench produced by volatile compounds emitted by the spadix (the large, yellow protuberance). Watch this animation of it growing in cultivation!

In Thailand Amorphophallus tubers are eaten steamed: the tubers are also used medicinally to help cure stomach ailments.

Rafflesia arnoldii
Rafflesia arnoldii

The largest flower in the world is actually a parasite! The rare Rafflesia, found only in the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, grows from spores and takes about nine months to produce a flower - the mahkota, or inner cup, of large Rafflesia can hold several quarts of water. Like the Amorphophallus, this flower stinks - the dead meat smell attracts flies. Because of its nine month gestation period, Rafflesia is linked with fertility traditions by tribal people living in the areas where it grows.

Metroxylon sagu - The Sago Palm
Sago Palm

Cultivated since ancient times, this short, stocky palm is still the most important source of starch for many tribes on the islands of New Guinea and Borneo. The center of the palm is hewn out, kneaded, washed, dried and made into steamed pudding, cakes and crackers. Weevil larvae living inside the palm are also considered good eating, and sometimes are steamed inside the sago, making a most interesting dish! Many other parts of the palm are made use of as well - the trunk, stalks and fronds for building rafters, walls, mats and baskets.