Lāʻau Lapaʻau
I paʻa ke kino o ke keiki i ka lāʻau.
That the body of the child be solidly built by the medicines.
A mother ate herbs during pregnancy and nursing for the sake of the baby's health.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1252

Let’s talk story about … lāʻau lapaʻau!

What would you do if you got a cut on your finger? Would you wash it and apply ointment? Then put on a Band-Aid? Did you know that you can actually use plants to heal wounds?


If you were to use lā‘au (plants), you would probably first gather some comfrey leaves. Then you would make a soft mixture out of the leaves. This is called a poultice. The green poultice is applied to the cut, then wrapped in plastic. The comfrey binds the skin together. It heals the cut the same way an antiseptic ointment does.

What is lāʻau lapaʻau?

Lā‘au lapa‘au is medicine made from plants. It is used to treat people who are sick or injured. Lā‘au lapa‘au is for healing the mind, body, and spirit. People gather lā‘au from the ‘āina (land) or kai (ocean) to make their medicine. Some lā‘au can be grown in the backyard.

How did lāʻau lapaʻau start?

Some mo‘olelo (stories) say Lonopūhā was the first to practice healing with lā‘au in Hawai‘i, and the first to found a school in this discipline. In several mo‘olelo, Lono stabs himself in the foot and learns the healing arts from the person who heals him. In one mo‘olelo, that person is the god Kāne. In another, it is Kamakanui‘āha‘ilono, who is a god in some versions and a kahuna in others. The foot accident was memorialized in a name Lono was later called: Lonopūhā (“pūhā” is an open sore or a swollen area with puss). Lonopūhā was also called a kahuna hāhā, as he was able to expertly diagnose illnesses by feeling—hāhā—the patient’s body with his fingertips.

Some people believe Kū and Hina are the original gods of healing because they are often prayed to when gathering lā‘au. There are other akua and ‘aumākua who were prayed to for healing, and all of them probably had a role in establishing the lā‘au in Hawai‘i.

[Healing stones] Waikīkī, Oʻahu. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Some stones and islets were also believed to have healing powers. Four stones still resting in Waikīkī were infused with the healing power of four lapa‘au experts from Moa‘ulanuiākea. Several hundred years ago, Kapaemāhū, Kahaloa, Kapuni, and Kinohi came to live at Ulukou, Waikīkī, near what is now the Moana Hotel. They performed wonderful feats of healing. They taught others, and their fame spread across the land. Before leaving Hawai‘i, they each transferred their power into a stone, and the healing stones were left for our people. With the passing of hundreds of years, the stones were mistreated. They were used in the foundation of a bowling alley, as picnic tables, and as towel-drying racks by beachgoers. Fortunately the stones now have a safe home in Waikīkī, and their story of the gift of healing is again being shared.

Who is allowed to practice lapaʻau?

Professionals in any field are called kāhuna. When referring to these professionals, their field of expertise follows the word “kahuna.” Kāhuna lā‘au lapa‘au are expert healers.

[Kī] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Most kāhuna lā‘au lapa‘au were handpicked and trained at a young age by an experienced kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au. They were taught how to gather plants and minerals, how to offer the correct pule (prayers), and how to perform the right rituals to heal the patient. This training would prepare the young student to someday become a kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au. It was an honor to be chosen. This type of training could last as long as twenty years.

‘Ohana used lā‘au lapa‘au daily. Families would use it to treat minor ailments and prevent future illnesses. Keiki (children) learned to be self-sufficient. If a keiki became ill, she would gather plants to treat herself. If she could not heal herself, then a family member would mālama (care for) her. The ‘ohana would visit a kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au only if they could not treat the illness on their own.

Lā‘au lapa‘au practitioners in the ‘ohana are similar to today’s family doctors who are intimately familiar with patients and their families. They know the family history, how a patient lives, and the kinds of foods the patient eats. They know whether the patient’s feelings and thoughts could be contributing to the illness. 

There were various kinds of healing experts. For example, kāhuna lā‘au kāhea specialized in bone setting. To graduate, they would have to break a bone of a family member, then set it perfectly into place.

What kinds of sicknesses are there?

Our kūpuna recognized three kinds of ma‘i (sickness)—ma‘i of the body, ma‘i from external forces, and ma‘i from within the ‘ohana. Bodily ma‘i are physical ailments and are what most medical doctors today treat. Ma‘i from external forces could be from gods, spirits, or curses. Ma‘i from within the ‘ohana could be from hurt feelings over a family quarrel or disagreement. If lā‘au did not cure a person’s sickness, then the ma‘i was believed to have been from external forces or from within the ‘ohana. For those kinds of ma‘i, certain pule and restorative processes were used.

How do we gather lāʻau?

[ʻŌlena] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.For a lā‘au practitioner, herbs must be gathered with a loving heart. Otherwise, negative thoughts are transferred to the plant. Good intentions are a must. Practitioners always say a pule before they gather. This sets their heart and mind in the right space. Pule prepares them to gather the herbs with plenty of aloha. Here is a pule used in gathering lā‘au for an eye condition:


I hele mai nei au e noi iā ‘oe, e Kāneikapōpolo I have come here to request you, O Kāneikapōpolo
I lā‘au e ola ai ka maka o (Mea)Medicine that (so-and-so’s) eyes may be healed
I ulu i lunaThat grew above
I kū i lunaThat stood above
I lālā i lunaThat branched above
I liko i lunaThat budded and leafed above
I ‘ōpū i lunaThat opened its flowers above
I mohala i lunaThat full-bloomed above
I pua i lunaThat flowered above
I hua a o‘o i lunaThat bore fruit and matured above
I pala i lunaThat ripened above
‘O ke ola o ka lā‘au āu, a Kāne,Grant the healing power of your medicine, O Kāne,
no ka maka o (Mea). ‘Āmama.for (so-and-so’s) eyes. It is finished.


What are some common lāʻau to maintain health and treat ailments?

There are many plants used for lā‘au lapa‘au. The practitioner uses all or some of the plant. Medicine can be made from roots, stems, flowers, leaves, seeds, bark, and fruit.

Lā‘au are used to keep the body healthy and prevent sickness. Kukui is one example. It is used to keep the skin soft and prevent dryness. The nut is roasted and the meat removed. The oil from the crushed meat can be rubbed into the skin. Mothers will often prepare kukui oil for their newborns. They rub the oil into the skin of the baby. This prevents the skin from flaking. It also keeps the skin soft and moist.

‘Ōlena, or turmeric, is a type of lā‘au. It grows and looks like the ginger root. The root is harvested and can be eaten raw. It can also be dried, ground into a powder, or made into a liquid called a tincture. ‘Ōlena helps reduce swelling. Many people who suffer from arthritis take ‘ōlena because it helps to ease swelling in their joints.

Wai niu, or coconut milk, is known to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney and liver trouble.

[Paʻakai and ʻalaea] Photo by Ruben Carillo.

Two of the most important ingredients used in lā‘au lapa‘au are pa‘akai (salt) and ‘alaea (red clay). These two ingredients are often combined with other lā‘au as part of the treatment.

How is traditional lāʻau practiced today?

There are ‘ohana and kānaka who still practice lā‘au lapa‘au. Many of the ‘ohana practitioners have been taught by their kūpuna. Others have learned the healing art through trained practitioners. Only a few graduate to become lā‘au practitioners.

What does your family do when you are sick? Ask your kūpuna. They may have a healthy lā‘au recipe to share with you!