Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Shade Plant

Story by Catharine Lo Griffin. Photos by Elyse Butler.

Standing on a cliff overlooking Kailua bay, Kiki Pu Chung is surrounded by naupaka. The hardy, indigenous shoreline plant can handle salt and sun—and, says Pu Chung, it’s a medicine for everything from pain relief to sun protection. A few weeks prior, she says, a little girl was stung by a jellyfish, so Pu Chung crushed up some naupaka leaves and rubbed the salve onto her skin to neutralize the pain.

When she learned that a common ingredient in commercial sunscreens, oxyben-zone, harms coral reefs, Pu Chung looked to naupaka, the guardian shrub of Hawai‘i’s coastlines, as an alternative. Many plant oils have a natural SPF (sun protection factor). Naupaka’s is high enough that ancient Hawaiians knew about its photo protective properties and are thought to have applied it as a sunblock. Combining her herbal training with her study of lā‘au lapa‘au (Hawaiian herbal medicine), Pu Chung created a reef-safe, skin-moisturizing sunblock using naupaka-infused coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, beeswax, red raspberry seed oil, carrot seed oil, lavender oil and non-nano zinc oxide. She and her partner Tim Clark fine-tuned the recipe and launched Hawaii Medicinal with a “Sunshine Healing” line that includes a body block, a face stick and an after-sun balm.

Tim’s parents are homeopathic physicians, and Pu Chung’s great-great-grand-father was the healer of his village outside the province of Canton, China. They’re both carrying on their respective family traditions using plants they grow in their yard (or “micro-farm,” as they call it), which stocks both their refrigerator and medicine cabinet. There’s laukahi, an endemic fern that draws out toxins; moringa, an anti-aging agent and super protein; weedy Spanish needles that fight gingivitis. The naupaka comes from shorelines of Windward O‘ahu. “I’ve always liked to make everything from scratch, using ingredients that come straight from the earth,” says Pu Chung. “Nature has a remarkable way of providing just what you need, where you need it, when you need it.”