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Jeju traditional medicine - plants that can heal
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승인 2013.03.28  11:33:23
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[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series. For Part 1, please see here.]

Jeju has approximately 2000 plant species, 800 of them with known medicinal applications.

Two regions in Korea are recognized as the earliest areas for the development of traditional medicine: Jeju Island, and the northwestern region of the peninsula bordering China. It seems only fitting that the central government has recently identified traditional medicine as one of the nation's growth industries under the Regional Investment Systems [RIS] program, and that in 2012, Jeju provincial government pledged to invest several billion won in the Oriental Medicine industry.

One of the most frequently used plants, found only on Jeju, is “seom ogalpi” (seom: island), acanthopanax koreanum nakai (araliaceae). The bark of the roots and stems, especially the former, is used to increase energy and strength, particularly of the lower body, and to treat leg, knee and back pain, sciatica, osteoporosis, diabetes, and hepatitis; it is generally known as an anti-inflammatory. In Jeju folklore, it is considered a treatment for the windy, damp climate, especially in elders (who are likely arthritic; Jeju has the highest incidence of rheumatic disease in all of Korea), and for the treatment of Cerebrovascular Accident [CVA], or stroke.

Found in the mid-mountain region, 3-4 roots are boiled together with pork bone and consumed. For diabetes, the fruit is distilled in liquor and taken in small doses over time. The plant, with its “walking” style of propagation via branching rhizomes or stolons, is widely distributed. Its leaves are not medicinal, and are used as food for livestock.

Another commonly used plant, particularly by Jeju's famed diving women or “hae-nyeo,” is “sun-bi-gi na-mu” (mainland),“sum-bu-gi” or “sum-be-gi” in Jeju dialect. The word is derived from “sum-bi-so-ri,” the distinct lyrical exhalation of breath by the divers when forcefully expelling carbon dioxide from their lungs as they surface; its name in standard Korean is actually a derivative of the Jeju dialect word. It is vitex rotundifolia, also known as “beach vitex,” “chasteberry,” among others. Throughout its wide range in Asia, it is used for medicinal purposes.

The haenyeo use the plant to avoid or treat the headaches and dizziness which accompany their frequent diving and pressure change, for which they boil and consume the fruit, a small, round, gray or black bean-like structure which emerges in autumn. Following the “Doctrine of Signatures” found in traditional medicine throughout the world, which means the image of the plant or animal mimics that which it treats, this plant with its green spiraling leaf structure topped by a purple flower and growing in clusters along the coast is said to look like a group of haenyeo when diving.

The leaves are used for pillow stuffing, believed to aid sleep and cure headaches. When napping at the beach, many cut the plant for a pillow.

Today's haenyeo are far more likely to take a pharmaceutical remedy called “naesan” to cure their diving symptoms, though not without side effects – and perhaps are better off with the sumbegi.

The “nong namu,” cinnamomum camphora or Camphor tree, is a large evergreen broadleaf that flowers in spring and produces a small fruit in summer. The strong and distinct odor of its blossom attracts and repels equally; birds and insects avoid the tree when in bloom, and it is considered to be “overstimulating” to humans. It is a natural insecticide when the wood is burned or the oil used topically.

Its bark is burned and the ashes applied by the diving women as a remedy for the toxic sting of a marine creature or to treat an open wound received while diving. Burning the bark and breathing the smoke or incense is a means of reviving someone to consciousness, and active ingredients have been isolated for the treatment of cardiac disease in Western medicine, similar to Digitalis as derived from foxglove.

The tree grows only in southern regions of the temperate zone and in Korea is found only in Jeju. In local folklore, it is thought to expel spirits (perhaps in reviving consciousness), and as a result was traditionally never planted inside the property surrounding the house, as Jeju shamanistic tradition includes household gods or spirits much like the Roman lares.

Another tree, the “deot-namu” (elimination tree) or akebia quinata, is also known locally as “mal-o-jum-dae” – literally, “horse peeing,” an image conjured by the bloom. More than 30% potassium salts and a natural diuretic, it is used to treat kidney conditions, strengthen the low back, reduce swellings, and mend bone fractures in the elderly. Often, its flower silks are boiled together with cassia (senna obtusifolia), known locally as “mountain kiwi,” and consumed as a tea.

Another indication of “Doctrine of Signatures” as previously mentioned can be found in the “meo-gu namu” or zanthoxylum ailanthoides. More folklore than medicine, perhaps more psychological or emotional than physical in its 'treatment,' it is used as a central shade tree in each village – and in the funeral when a mother dies. In Jeju traditional funerals, the sons stand beside the altar to the deceased parent; if the mother is the deceased, they hold branches of this plant with its many protuberances looking much like pregnancy, while if it is the father, hollow rods of bamboo are held instead. This funeral marker, likely a conduit for the deceased's spirit at its origin, is called “bang-jang-dae” on Jeju and “sang jang” on the mainland.

The nut of the “bi-ja namu” (Jeju: “bi-nang”) or torryea nucifera (Japanese nutmeg yew), celebrated on Jeju in the Bija-rim (forest) in the east, is offered on the altar of “chesa-sang” or ancestral worship. These trees typically live to be 500-800 years old, and one on Jeju, documented at 825 years, has recently been dubbed “The Millennium Tree” by Jeju government.

The fruit of the tree is an anti-parasitic. Seven to eight nuts thoroughly chewed and swallowed on an empty stomach, daily for seven days, rids the digestive tract of parasites. The wood of this tree is also burned to expel mosquitoes, and to make furniture as well as the ubiquitous “paduk” game boards.

When Emperor Qin Shi Huang, of China's Qin State (246-221BCE), sent his envoy in search of an elixir of longevity to “the island in the east” known today as Jeju, he may have been searching for “si-ro-mi” (Jeju: “si-reo-mi”) or empetrum nigrum var. japonicum, also known as black crowberry. A band of trees growing at 1400m on the east side of Halla Mountain, the berries are a traditional medicine that was known to the Emperor, used not only to treat altitude sickness but also to strengthen the back, knees, and bones – making an old man feel young.

It is known today as a powerful antioxidant, reducing cell damage via oxygen distress. In other words: an elixir of youth.

The common thistle, cirsium, known variously as “gasi eong-geong kui,” “eong-geong kui,” or “baneul eong-geong kui” on the mainland, and “so-wang-i” or “so-waeng-i” (literally, “cow feed”) on Jeju, is used for a variety of medical treatments in many cultures throughout the world. On Jeju it has been used for the treatment of uterine bleeding, digestive symptoms, neurosis, diabetes, stroke, and bone pain. When the buds emerge in spring, they are mixed with “toen-jang” or soybean paste, and consumed.

Plants that remain green through winter have long been given magical properties in many cultures. The “eu-a-ri” (mainland), called “jeo-seul-sa-ri” or “winter-leaved / life” on Jeju, clematis mandshurica, is well known not only in Jeju but the Western world as well for the treatment of arthritis and neuralgia. Jeju people boil the root for two hours and make a liquor-based infusion, to be taken by 1-2 spoonfuls two to four times per day for 15 days.

The many uses of “o-i-pul” or “ga-neun o-i-pul” (mainland), “o-na-rit-bul-hee” on Jeju, sanguisorba officinalis [Great Burnet], make it especially popular. Diffused as a tea and consumed daily for a month removes hard nodules or tumors in the lymphatic glands of the throat and axillary regions; boiled in a pot of water over the steam of which an arthritic joint is held aids arthritis. The tea also treats swellings and inflammation in the kidneys, bruising, any other inflammation including oral (taken as a mouthwash), itchy skin and athlete's foot, hemorrhoids, and suppressed appetite – among others.

Though Jeju is surrounded by and dependent upon the sea, much of its food known for health properties derived from same, traditional medicines were not found in the sea environment. Jeju's natural medicine was almost entirely plant-based with the few animal exceptions aforementioned.

A great deal of research is being done in the area of Jeju traditional medicine. What the grannies knew, the scientists are discovering. And so goes the world.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju her home. Dr. Hilty was additionally educated in and practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine for 14 years.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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