Noni (Morinda citrifolia) — A Brief History

Prior to my upcoming meeting with Uncle Herb (aka “The Noni Man”) tomorrow, I thought it wise to upgrade my rather limited knowledge of noni—especially when it comes to its historical usage. I am hoping to discover what role this fruit played in the lives of ancient Hawaiians. What did they use it for? And did they bring it to Hawai‘i or was it already there?
Now, as is often the case when doing research, details varied as to where the noni plant originated and how different cultures used it, but everything I read made it crystal clear that noni has played a key role in cultures throughout the South Pacific for the past 2,000 plus years.

Noni is believed to be among the original “canoe plants” that Hawai‘i’s Polynesian colonizers brought with them. (Canoe plants refers to plants ancient Polynesians took with them on their long, open ocean, voyages.) Of the two-dozen canoe plants that were brought to Hawai‘i, noni is the only one that was used almost exclusively for medicinal purposes.

Ancient Hawaiians used the noni fruit to treat everything from head lice to toothaches, sores or scabs to deep bruises, as well as a myriad of other ailments. In fact, researchers have identified over forty different traditional-medicinal uses of the noni. In addition to the noni fruit, these treatments used the noni leaves, flowers, and bark as well.

Oral histories in both Hawai‘i and the Marquesas also include mention of noni as a starvation or famine food. (A famine food is any readily available food used to nourish people in times of extreme starvation.) So, not only was noni the go to plant for healing, but it also served as insurance against starvation should food become scarce. Noni, quite possibly, was the first item ever deposited into an ancient foodbank as well as a first aid kit.

Noni—which is related to the coffee plant (who knew?)—continues to amaze. There’s no telling what secrets still lay hidden within this fruit, just waiting to be discovered (or quite possible rediscovered). I imagine noni could have saved many a western sailor’s life back when tall ships sailed the seas and sailors succumbed to everything from a cut that became infected to scurvy. In the coming weeks, I plan on finding all of the scientific papers on noni that I can. Who knows, noni may be worthy of a place in today’s first aid kits, it might also be a valuable addition to UNICEF’s famine relief arsenal.

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Parting note: While digging into noni’s ancient past, I stumbled upon a more recent bit of information. It seems Uncle Herb was the first individual to bring noni pulp powder, in capsule form, to the commercial marketplace. He began selling noni powder back in 1992, after first patenting a unique method for dehydrating noni—U.S. Patent No. 5288491: Noni (Morinda Citrifolia) as a pharmaceutical product. Impressive!

There literally is no telling what I will learn next. I can’t wait for my next meeting with The Noni Man.

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