Feature Herb: Popolo

March 13, 2016

I recently returned from Hawaii and had the pleasure to stay with my mother-in-law's partner, who is part Hawaiian.  He grew up on the Big Island (Kona side) and has many tales of how it used to be.  

When he grew up, things were a lot different and he tells stories of helping his mom pick coffee beans, with a gallon size bucket hanging from his neck that he had to fill.  He said that he and his mom used to fill three 50 lb bags of coffee a day, hand picking the beans, ten to twelve hours a day. They got $3 a bag.  

He also has told me a few times about an herb that his mom used to use on wounds and illnesses. He said that he would have to pick it for her when it was in season.  This time, I finally sat down with him to write down what he remembered about the herb and what it was used for.  The herb is called the Popolo fruit.  The fruit itself is small and round and starts off very small.  It is green, and as it grows it turns between purple and black.  If the plant has been more in the sun, it will be more black in color.  If it has been more in the shade, it will be more purple.  The fruit grows to no more than 1/4 to 3/8ths of an inch in diameter.  It grows in clusters on the stem of about 3 to 6 or 7.  The fruit is almost perfectly round, smooth and glossy. To eat it, it is sweet and juicy.  It will stain your clothes, and though he said that his mom never used it as a dye, it seems from doing some reading up on it, it has been used for that. 

The plant itself is not really a bush, he recalls it looking more like a tomato plant, 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall.  The Popolo plant grows on all of the Hawaiian Islands, but it grows best in Hilo (also on the Big Island).  It likes wet areas, like by the waterfalls. 

The leaves are what seem to have the medicinal properties to them.  He states that he used to have to pick the young leaves off the Popola "tree", steam them, put them in a strainer and squeeze the juice out of the leaves.  The juice would then be used for fever, upset stomach, any sort of internal problem.  Normal dosage was 2 to 3 tablespoons. 

Also, the leaves could be used to pack wounds and heal topical infections. After steaming and squeezing the juice out of the leaves, pack the wound with the leaves, wrap it with a clean bandage and check after 24 hours.  Wound should (and usually did) look better leaving no scarring and healing quickly. Even if you have let the wound fester for several days, pack it with the young, processed leaves and it will help to heal it quickly.  

After looking this herb up when returning to the mainland, it seems to be a very old and useful herb.  It is a member of the nightshade family and is in the Solanum genus.  There are 4 species that are native to the Hawaiian Islands.  The herb that my father-in-law is referring to is likely the S. americanum because it is the only one that has edible fruits. The 3 other species, do not have edible fruits.  There is a very similar looking plant introduced after European arrival in Hawai'i and is known as the Solanum nigrescens.  Its fruit is reported to be toxic. Its berries may not be as glossy as those of the popolo.

 

Researching more, I found this bit of information about current uses of the herb which coincide with what I was told.  The part about using salt during the processing of it is interesting:

 

The raw sap from the leaves and juice from the berries of popolo are used for all disorders of the respiratory tract. Crushed leaves are mixed with salt to heal cuts and other wounds.

As an aid to digestion, the tender young leaves at the tips of the branches are steeped with a little salt and eaten.

To cure a cold, steam popolo leaves that have been wrapped in ki leaves. Remove the popolo leaves and divide them into five equal portions. Eat one portion in the evening for five days. 

Excerpt from: Plants in Hawaiian medicine by Beatrice Krauss.

I love learning about new herbs.  I especially love when they are somewhat close to home.  It is important to continue to pass down our generational knowledge of properties and uses for the herbs.  Without passing it on and writing it down, it will get lost, and many of the little tricks and secrets to growing, harvesting and using these herbs will fall by the wayside.  Hopefully, someone will see this and be able to apply it. 

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