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Book Review: Ethnobotany of Palau: Plants, People, and Island Culture, Vols. 1 and 2

Ethnobotany of Palau: Plants, People, and Island Culture, Vols. 1 and 2. by Michael J. Balick and Ann Hillmann Kitalong, eds. New York, NY: New York Botanical Garden; Koror, Palau: Belau National Museum; 2020. Volume 1: ISBN: 9798685012555; Softcover, 256 pages; $49.95. Volume 2: ISBN: 9798685017864; Softcover, 392 pages; $74.95.

By Steven R. King, PhD

Cover of Ethnobotany of Palau, Volume 1This two-volume set explores the relationship among traditional culture, people, and plants in the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific. It is an exquisite, unique contribution that is the result of field studies that began in 2007, as part of the Plants and People of Micronesia program of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Edited by Michael J. Balick, PhD, of the NYBG, and Ann Hillmann Kitalong, PhD, of the Belau National Museum in Palau, these volumes focus on Palauan botany, ethnobotany, biocultural diversity, conservation, resource management, phytochemistry, and more. This work is part of a series of excellent books from this dynamic program, including Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture (University of Hawaii Press, 2009) and Pohnpei Primary Health Care Manual: Health Care in Pohnpei, Micronesia: Traditional Uses of Plants for Health and Healing (New York Botanical Garden, 2010), which were written by Balick and many collaborators. Those books were reviewed in HerbalGram issues 89 and 92, respectively.1,2

According to the back cover text of The Ethnobotany of Palau: “These volumes are the most significant contemporary work[s] of their kind on the biocultural diversity of Palau, resulting from collaboration and partnership of the Belau National Museum, the New York Botanical Garden, National Tropical Botanical Garden and other institutions, communities and civic groups involving more than 75 individuals — plant collectors, local experts and ethnobotanical contributors.” This is an understatement for many reasons.

In fact, these two volumes integrate many scientific fields and have multiple applied objectives, the likes of which I have never had the pleasure to read or witness before. The diverse set of people who contributed to this work is staggering. The authors and contributors are expanding the boundaries of what ethnobotanical research can accomplish and contribute at the local, national, and international levels. I was especially moved by one of the intentions of this work, expressed by all the authors and contributors: to help support the “cultural memory” of the people of Palau. That goal has been accomplished with grace, sensitivity, rigorous scientific discipline, passion, and patience.

The two volumes total 648 pages, including 303 pages on local uses of plants in Palau. These pages are an ethnobotanical compendium and include excellent photographs of the plants, scientific names, local names, uses of the plants, cultural significance, and even the role of the plants in Palauan mythology.

Chapter 1, “People and Plants of Palau,” is an introduction to ecosystems, biodiversity, history, conservation threats, and human health in Cover of Ethnobotany of Palau, Volume 2Palau. I was especially delighted by the 35 excellent photographs in this chapter that depict terrestrial and aquatic landscapes, Palauan elders, youth, scientists, local leaders, students, and others working together in the field, labs, and villages. The chapter provides visual examples of what Palau looks like. There is a sense of delight, enthusiasm, pride, and purpose among the people working on this project. This chapter also describes a clear directive on intellectual property used by the researchers and mentions that family and clan secret knowledge was not shared or recorded in these volumes.

Chapter 2, “Legacies on Babeldaob’s Landscape,” explores the ancient history of land use transformations and terracing on Babeldaob, one of the two largest volcanic islands in Micronesia and the largest island in the Republic of Palau. Chapter 3, “The Cycle of Life,” describes how plants were and are used for rituals, medicine, food, shelter, and the arts throughout the phases of life, from birth to death. I greatly enjoyed seeing images of elders and youth preparing spears, housing, food, vessels, toys, and items for rituals and healing. The end of this and other chapters provides the names and dates in which interviews were conducted over the past 12 years. Chapter 4, “The Bai: An Essential Part of Palauan Culture,” provides a detailed history of the bai, or meeting house, which historically was the most important architectural structure in each village. These are beautiful structures that have lavish designs, illustrations on the walls, and beams that depict legends and myths. There are several types of bai, and the plant materials used to create them are presented.

Chapter 5, “Life from the Ocean to Life on Land,” describes the diverse methods of fishing practiced in Palau, including traps, spears, nets, and lures, along with the plants used to make these devices. The information in this chapter is derived from the knowledge of two highly experienced fishermen. The chapter includes wonderful illustrations and images. Chapter 6, “Dait: A Cultural Keystone Plant in Palau,” discusses the fundamental role that dait or taro (Colocasia esculenta, Araceae) plays in Palauan culture and diet. This chapter begins with a reverential Palauan proverb that translates to “the taro field is the mother or breath of life,” and readers learn about the traditional methods of cultivation of the 32 local and 16 introduced varieties that are deeply woven into the life and culture of these people. I greatly enjoyed the segment on the oral histories, proverbs, and chants that are linked to this cultivated plant.

Chapter 7, “Traditional Medicine in Palau,” introduces the traditional medicine practice of Palau. Chapter 8, “Phytochemistry and Ethnomedicine: Understanding the Traditional Preparations of Medicinal Plants in Palau,” provides an overview of laboratory extraction methods as well as a description of general classes of phytochemicals. It then presents some of the preparation methods used in Palau traditional medicine, followed by the phytochemical properties of two plant medicines: betel nut (Areca catechu, Arecaceae) and ongael (Phaleria nisidai, Thymelaeaceae). Chapter 9, “Local Uses of Plants on Palau: An Ethnobotanical Compendium,” which is the first chapter of volume 2, contains the aforementioned 303 pages of plant profiles. Chapter 10, “Checklist of Vascular Plants of Palau,” is an updated checklist of native and introduced flora.

The authors and contributors of this two-volume set have moved ethnobotanical research into a new level of richness and purpose. The integrated transdisciplinary nature of this research provides a sort of ethnobotanical “Noah’s Ark” for the people of Palau and the rest of the world. Traditional ecological, ethnomedical, and agricultural knowledge and the wisdom of elders are disappearing from many regions and cultures on Earth. People and communities are making choices about how to manage their environmental, medical, spiritual, and cultural future in the face of this disappearing knowledge. These volumes indeed represent a critical “cultural memory” document, as the authors have stated. As the people of Palau navigate their future and destiny, they may elect to use and rejuvenate approaches to long-term sustainable cultural and resource management as documented in these volumes. I offer my thanks and congratulations to all the parties who produced these volumes and all who are participating in the long-term Plants and People of Micronesia program.

Steven R. King, PhD, is Chief Sustainable Supply, Ethnobotanical Research, and Intellectual Property Officer at Jaguar Health, Inc., and Napo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

References

  1. Duke JA. Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People, and Island Culture. HerbalGram. 2011;89:65-66. Available at: www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/89/table-of-contents/bkrvws_ethnobotany/. Accessed June 29, 2021.
  2. King SR. Pohnpei Primary Health Care Manual. HerbalGram. 2011;92:66-67. Available at: www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/92/table-of-contents/bkrvw-pohnpei/. Accessed June 29, 2021.
References