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articles-by-dawn-shipley-ra-ncpa

The Treasures of Tahiti

by Dawn Shipley, RA, NCPA - Owner, Blue Dawn Aromatherapy
Tahitian sunset over the island of Mo'orea
“This article originally appeared in the NAHA Journal Summer 2018.2 and it is republished here according to the NAHA Writer Guidelines 2017-18 copyright statement. “  All photos copyright Dawn Shipley.
Bali Hai and pineapple fields, Mo'orea
I had been dreaming of going to Tahiti for as long as I can remember. I had to see those beautiful beaches and jagged peaks with my own eyes! The chance finally came, and it was even more amazing than I could’ve imagined. The sparkling turquoise waters with the contrast of the protruding jungle-green jagged mountains, overwater bungalows, gorgeous sunsets, and fabulous rich flavors were all magical! But even more amazing and unexpected were the gracious and welcoming locals, and learning of the wonders of their lush vegetation, especially their hidden treasures such as the Tiare flower (Gardenia tahitensis).
View from Magic Mountain, Mo'orea
Tahitians have always highly valued and have been very resourceful with their plants. The leaves of the native ti (Cordyline fruticosa) and hibiscus (Hibiscus taliaceus) plants had a variety of uses, from plates to making skirts, headdresses, and thatched roofs.[1] Plants have been used extensively in traditional Tahitian medicine as well. When one became ill, they would make a visit to a healer-priest, Tahitian healers would make remedies (ra’au) that were comprised of 3 parts:
  1. Medicinal plants: Usually a combination of 5 or 6 plants, though sometimes more. Plants would be used fresh or frozen but never dried. The would be crushed and wrung through either a mesh cloth (more commonly these days) or mesh made out of a plant (more common traditionally) into the following 2 parts:
  2. Liquid: Usually water or coconut water of a particular native variety of coconuts called ‘oviri. In the case of an ointment or liniment, monoi oil, a scented coconut oil is often used.
  3. Palliative: Usually sugar or Tiare (Gardenia tahitensis) flower, probably due to its delicate sweet fragrance and taste, or possibly also ancient tradition[2].

Tiki statue, Arahurahu Marae, Tahiti

These remedies are usually simple infusions of the fresh ingredients, but are sometimes boiled. Different parts of the plant are used, such as leaves, leaf buds, rhizhomes, bark, or flowers. They are used as baths, potions, ointments, liniments, or poultices. Even still, the Tahitians believe that some ailments cannot be healed by Western medicine, and can only be treated with these traditional Tahitian remedies[3].
In my visit to Tahiti, some of the particularly noteworthy plant species I saw were:
Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum)
For lesser injuries that can be managed at home, the Tahitians use tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum) oil extensively. Physical ailments such as sunburns, insect bites, sprains and bruises are generously rubbed with tamanu oil. It is sold in just about every store, including the airport gift shop, the municipal market in the heart of Pape’ete, and every little magasin, as they were called—or convenient store—around the island of Mo’orea. We even stayed next door to a factory that produced tamanu and other carrier oils.   
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
Breadfruit Tree with fruit alongside road
Along the streets you will see many strange trees with hanging fruit. One of those trees is the breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), or ‘uru as the Tahitians know it. It is one of the most useful plants in Tahiti, exceeded only in importance by the coconut (Cocos nucifera), for its oil. The tree, with a large rounded top, can be up to 20 meters or more in height with large dark, glossy green leaves. The fruit, which can weigh up to 10 pounds, is an excellent source of carbohydrates and B vitamins. It is known as the “staff of life” and is a major food source in Tahiti, used similarly to a potato (they even had a breadfruit beer!). When cut, the tree produces an abundant milky latex that is then applied to rashes, abscesses, sores, boils and wounds. The sap has also been said to be used for sprains, dislocations, and contusions.[4]
Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata)
Ylang Ylang growing at Venus Point, Tahiti
I noticed a lush tropical scent wafting my way in a random park on the island of Tahiti. I delightfully discovered I was standing next to an exotic ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) tree! Known to the Tahitians as moto’i, it was probably introduced to Tahiti in the European Era. Though no essential oil is produced in Tahiti, the flowers are used to make fragrant and beautiful headdresses and leis, or heis as they are known in Tahitian, as well as scented coconut oil used in skin care and massages. This works out well, as ylang-ylang is an anti-inflammatory, provides a soothing effect on the skin.[5] 
Black sand beach,  Trou du Souffleur de Arahoho, Tahiti
Kukui Nut (Aleurites moluccana)
I also happened upon a kukui nut (Aleurites moluccana) tree. As a carrier oil, it is known to be good for acne, eczema, and psoriasis;[6] though surprisingly is not used in this manner in Tahiti. It is also known as candlenut, due to the fact that the Tahitians would string the nuts together on a skewer and burn them as a light source, as they contain about 50-60% oil. The soot left over from burning the seeds was then used for dye in their traditional tattoos[7].
Vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis)
Vanilla beans growing at the Tropical Garden, Mo'orea
One unexpected highlight of our trip was a visit to a family owned vanilla plantation where we could walk through the rows of vanilla beans and sample jams of papaya vanilla and other exotic flavors. Though more widely used in cooking and fragrance than aromatherapy, I had to include the Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis), as it is truly an exceptional treat, whether in ice cream or the scented coconut oil used for skin care and massages. Tahitian vanilla is a species that is most likely a cross between Vanilla odorata and Vanilla planifolia.[8] It contains less vanillin than the more common Vanilla planifolia and has an anisic component to the scent introduced by anisyl alcohol and anisic acid that makes it highly prized in gastronomy and perfumery. [9] In aromatherapy, vanilla has a consoling and soothing scent.[10] In any case, it is an amazing scent/flavor to experience.
Tiare (Gardenia tahitensis)
Tiare flower up close, Mo'orea
Last but definitely not least is the star of Tahiti, the delicate and sweetly scented gardenia. The very popular plant that was probably an ancient introduction to the area is a small shrub or tree about 2 meters tall with white star-shaped fragrant flowers[11] that bloom year-round.[12] The flowers are used in many ways in Tahiti: in the traditional fragrant headdresses and leis, scenting cool, moist towels that welcome you at the luxury resorts, in jams and ice creams, behind the ear to show relationship status, and even in medicines and skin care. Until recently, it was thought the reasons the flower is used medicinally range from its pleasant fragrance and delicious flavor to its perceived supernatural benefits rooted in ancient tradition.[13] However, it has also been found to relieve earaches, migraines and mosquito bites and sties.[14] It is used as mentioned previously as the palliative in many of the traditional ra’aus, or remedies, or in the form of Monoi de Tahiti oil as the liquid part of the ra’au, usually in the case the remedy was an ointment.[15] More recently, GC/MS (gas chromatography and mass spectrophotometry) analyses have confirmed the presence of the active molecules in Monoi de Tahiti due to the tiare flower such as methyl salicylate known for its soothing and purifying properties, plus alcohols such as hexanoland phenylethyl alcohol that is also purifying.[16]
 
View from over-water bungalow, Mo'orea
Monoi de Tahiti oil is probably the most well-known use for the tiare flower. This oil is a delicacy produced by a special process using very specific ingredients. At least 15 fresh tiare flowers in their closed, pre-blooming state must be soaked per liter of coconut (Cocos nucifera) oil, and they must be soaked for a minimum of 15 days.[17] The oil has been produced commercially since 1942, though the Polynesian women have used this oil as a beauty remedy for hair and skin for more than 2,000 years. It is an exquisite skin moisturizer for both hair and skin, and can be used as an after sun moisturizer.[18] It is also used for Taurumi massage, an ancient traditional Tahitian massage that allows the body to recover all its connections to the world. It is a wellness ritual that uses scented and sacred plants to awaken the senses and produce a deep intimacy between the body and nature.[19] In any case, it is a luxuriously unique and uplifting scent and flavor. Anything made with it is truly a delicacy.
Polynesian palms, Mo'orea
Though tiare flowers in their fresh, pre-blooming state are a bit difficult to come by outside of Polynesia, you can use the enfleurage process to make your own Monoi style oil. 
Ingredients:
1 liter coconut oil, refined
15 – 20 fragrant flower buds of choice, before the bloom has opened
Place in jar in a stable location at room temperature
Allow to soak for 15 – 20 days
Strain oil through mesh cloth such as cheesecloth
 
Add the following essential oils to 1 ounce of your enfleuraged oil for a soothing and hydrating tropical-themed face oil:
1 drop ginger (Zingiber officinale), preferably fresh
2 drops lime (Citrus aurantifolia) essential oil
3 drops ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) essential oil, preferably complete
Cautions:  Phototoxicity – avoid direct sunlight for 1 to 2 hours after application; use with caution on hypersensitive, diseased or damaged skin, and on children under two years of age.
 
Mo'orea
 
[1] Unknown, Ron.  “Half-Day 4WD Tour of Moorea Including Lycée Agricole.” Moorea, French Polynesia. 28 Feb 2018. 
[2] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg. 87.
[3] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg. 76.
[4] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg 125-126.
[5] Lavabre, Marcel.  Aromatherapy Workbook.  Healing Arts Press, 1996. Pg 104.
[6] Price, Len and Shirley.  Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage.  4th Edition. Riverhead Publishing, 2008.
[7] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg. 122.
[8] Christel Brunschwig, François-Xavier Collard, Sandra Lepers-Andrzejewski and Phila Raharivelomanana. “Tahitian Vanilla (Vanilla ×tahitensis): A Vanilla Species with Unique Features.” https://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/53312.pdf. Accessed April 29, 2018.
[9] SEA Semester Website, “The Vanilla of French Polynesia”, https://www.sea.edu/spice_atlas/moorea_atlas/the_vanilla_of_french_polynesia. Accessed April 29, 2018:
[10] Green, Mindy and Kathi Keville.  Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide To The Healing Art.  2nd Edition.  New York:  Crossing Press, 1995. Pg. 213.
[11] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg 150.
[12] Unknown, Ron.  “Half-Day 4WD Tour of Moorea Including Lycée Agricole.” Moorea, French Polynesia. 28 Feb 2018.
[13] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg 150.
[14] Monoi Tiare Tahiti website, “Monoi and the Tiare Flower”, Accessed April 29, 2018.
[15] Whistler, W Arthur, Dr.  Polynesian Herbal Medicine.  China:  Everbest Printing Co., Ltd., 1992. Pg 87.
[16] Institut Du Monoi website, “Tiare Flower – the emblem of Tahiti,” http://www.monoi-institute.org/tiare.php. Accessed May 3, 2018.
[17] Monoi Tiare Tahiti website, “Monoi and the Tiare Flower”, Accessed April 29, 2018.
[18] Price, Len and Shirley.  Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage.  4th Edition. Riverhead Publishing, 2008. Pg 238.
[19] Tahitian Secrets Website, “Monoi de Tahiti Sandalwood,” http://tahitiansecrets.com/en/massage-well-being/66-tahiti-monoi-sandalwood.html. Accessed April 30, 2018.

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