The utilization of medicinal plants by the indigenous people of East Malaysia

The aborigines of East Malaysia have utilized medicinal plants for many centuries. A comprehensive report by Chai et al. (1989) on the uses of native medicinal plants of Sarawak does provide useful information on the resource use by the natives. About 285 species of medicinal plants, mostly indigenous and wild, were recorded.

Two studies (Fasihuddin et al., 1995; Fasihuddin et al., 1996) investigated some of the medicinal plants used by the various ethnic groups in Sarawak, particularly the Iban, Bidayuh, Malay, Kadazan, Melanau, Kelabit, Kenyah and Kayan. Plants belonging to the families of Annonaceae, Compositae, Euphorbiaceae, Lauraceae, Leguminosae, Moraceae, Rubiaceae, Simaroubaceae, Solanaceae, Vernemaceae and Zingiberaceae are widely used by the natives. Another study (Runi, 2001) compiled all information on plant specimens that are being collected and recorded from various ethnic groups in Sarawak. Data such as local names, botanical names, family, date of collection, name of informants, locality, habitat, habit and uses were recorded for each of the medicinal plants basically used by various ethnic groups, namely, the Ibans, Malays, Chinese, Melanau, Bidayuh, Selakau, Kedayans, Kelabits, Kayans, Kenyah, Lun Bawang and Penans. About 2,371 ethno botanical specimens of medicinal plants, which are believed to be used by those ethnic groups, were recorded. Some of the medicinal forest plants used by the Kelabit are shown in Table 9.

Scientific name (Family)
Vernacular name (Kelabit)
Medicinal uses
Andrographis paniculata (Acanthaceae)
Roots boiled and taken orally to ease stomach ache
Gonithalamus tapis (Annonaceae)
Roots boiled and taken orally to treat diarrhoea and stomach ache
Polyalthia cauliflora (Annonaceae)
Roots boiled and taken orally as an aid for birth control
Cyrtandra oblingifolia (Gesneriaceae)
Roots boiled and taken orally as an aid for abortion up to 5 months of pregnancy and also for menstrual irregularity
Bauhinia kockkiana (Leguminosae)
Akar Ketong
Roots boiled and taken orally to treat gonorrhoea and body pain due to sickness
Mussaenda elmeri (Rubiaceae)
Leaves boiled and taken orally to treat toothache, headache and diabetes

Table 9. Some medicinal plants used by the Kelabit community in Sarawak

For other medicinal plants used by the community, refer to Fasihuddin et al. (1995)
In Sabah, a study (Fasihuddin & Hasmah, 1992) documented the wide use of medicinal plants by the Kadazan and Dusun communities. Species from the families of Euphorbiaceae, Leguminoceae, Graminae, Verbenaceae, Solanaceae, Simaroubaceae, Vitaceae, Malvaceae, Palmae and Rubiaceae are commonly used. Table 10 shows some medicinal plants basically used by practitioners from the Kadazan and Dusun community in Sabah.
Species (Family)
Local names (Kadazan/Dusun)
Uses to treat
Andrographis paniculata (Acanthaceae)
Samsan (Kadazan)
High blood pressure, malaria
Schizophyllum commune (Agaricaceae)
Kodop (Kadazan)
Stomach ache, poisoning
Amaranthus spinosus (Amaranthaceae)
Sansan Lodut/Sansan namatai (Dusun/Kadazan)
Cough, diarrhoea, problem of boils
Mangifera pajang (Anacardiaceae)
Bambangan (Kadazan/Dusun)
Stomach ache, diarrhoea
Annona muricata (Annonaceae)
Hanpun kapal (Kadazan/Dusun)
To give heat to the body

Table10. Medicinal plants used by the Kadazan and Dusun communities in Sabah 

Refer to Fasihuddin & Hasmah (1992) for more information on other medicinal plants used
A recent ethno-botanical study (Sukup et al., 2001) on the Rungus ethnic group in six villages in the Kudat District, Sabah found that only 38 species of medicinal plants from 26 families were frequently used by the ethnic group in their traditional preparation. The study recorded uses of such medicinal plants, the parts of the medicinal plants used as well as the respondents’ names.
The medicinal forest plants in East Malaysia are found to have tremendous potential for modern drug development. One of the famous medicinal plants believed to be able to cure cancer and AIDS is the Bitangor tree (Calophyllum lanigerum), which is found in Sarawak. The Sarawak government is working closely with a US multinational company to develop its potential further.
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