Issue 6.2: April/May 2003

Plant Life


story by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg

Paul Cox

Paul Cox is scrambling down an overgrown hillside toward a zombie palm, a highly endangered tree from Haiti with pale, fan-like leaves and a thorny trunk that looks like it would make a very lethal war club.

Cox is so intent on the palm that he scarcely seems to notice his broken foot—and, though I am now well into the second day I’m spending with him, I hadn’t noticed it either until he pointed his cast out to me with a wry smile just before he took off down the hill. Somehow, the things that might impede most mortals don’t seem to phase Cox, particularly not when lives are at stake.

A renowned ethnobotanist, Cox has made a life’s work of studying mankind’s use of plants, as well as championing some of the most threatened creatures on the planet—tropical plants and animals. In a career that’s spanned the earth’s ecosystems, he’s been an environmental advisor to the king of Sweden, a botany professor at Brigham Young University, one of Time magazine’s "heroes of medicine" and a president of the International Society of Ethnopharmacology. His work to save rainforests in Western Samoa won him the world’s most important environmental award, the Goldman prize, and the book he wrote about that experience, Nafanua, won universal acclaim from reviewers.

Now Cox is in Hawaii, heading up the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a safe haven for tropical plants. The NTBG —which is headquartered, appropriately enough, on the Garden Isle of Kauai—encompasses some 1,600 acres spread among four gardens in Hawaii and one in south Florida. "We have the best collection of tropical plants in the world," Cox says with the calm zeal that never seems to leave him, "as well as one of the best tropical botany libraries in the world, a great laboratory and an herbarium with 45,000 plants. We are to tropical botany what the Mauna Kea observatory is to astronomy."

Chartered by Congress in 1964, the NTBG is dedicated to research, conservation and education—it backs scientific studies, supports collecting expeditions and sponsors on-site workshops for doctors, journalists and academics. More than ninety people work at the NTBG, all of them in the name of saving and studying tropical plants. The Garden’s Chair of Science, David Lorence, for example, is working to create a catalog of the plants of the Marquesas; when we talk, he is getting ready to head out on another collecting expedition to the remote archipelago. A self-described Wisconsin farm boy, Lorence discovered his love for tropical plants during a Peace Corps stint in Mauritius.

Dr. Diane Ragone, the Garden’s Chair of Conservation and Horticulture, is working to create a "genetic safety net," collecting seeds from threatened populations of some 130 endangered native Hawaiian species. "Native plants have such cultural significance," she says. "Knowledge of some of these plants goes back several thousand years. Lose that knowledge, lose these plants, and you lose your culture and your ability to be self-sufficient."

Dr. Diane Ragone

Ragone fell in love with botany in high school and went on to become one of the world’s foremost experts on breadfruit, a traditional staple in the Pacific. With a hint of a southern accent, she provides all kinds of fascinating information about the plant—like the fact that when Captain Bligh lost his ship to Fletcher Christian, he was in Tahiti to collect a bounty of breadfruit trees to feed slaves in the Caribbean. (The Bounty was delayed however, and reached Tahiti after breadfruit season was over, forcing Bligh to wait around the idyllic island for months—during which time Christian and the other mutineers decided they didn’t want to leave.)

The NTBG’s own breadfruit collections, begun in the 1970s, contain over 220 trees representing over 120 varieties, and this year, the Garden started a "breadfruit institute" to promote the tree. Indeed, the tree is so much a part of the institution’s identity that the NTBG’s logo, emblazoned on official T-shirts, consists of its name wrapped around a breadfruit.

The organization maintains three gardens on Kauai, all open to the public, all harboring thousands of tropical species. As Cox and I walk through the McBryde Garden, he points out examples of nature’s nonstop inventiveness, including a soaring tree from Guyana nicknamed the "cannonball tree" for the large scarlet-and-cream blossoms that flower on its trunk; the tangled red jade vine, a mass of brown ropes hung with thousands of fire-red crescent blossoms; and, from Southeast Asia, a tall, lush ylang-ylang tree covered with thin, green, orchid-like flowers with an intoxicating scent.

But as Cox and I walk through the garden, he makes clear that this is not simply a collection of beautiful plants, nor is it just a nursing home for endangered species. It is, in fact, a twenty-four-hour living pharmacy, a "treasure chest," in Cox’s words, of traditional, modern and yet-to-be-discovered medicines.


Cox’s research has focused specifically on medical uses of plants, and, to him, each one of the species in the garden is a potential lifesaver, an ally in his quest to prevent disease. While you and I might look at a plant and see leaves, flowers, stems and stalks, Cox looks and sees teas, poultices, salves and solutions. The red jade vine I admired? A source of L-Dopa, the potent neurological drug that so dramatically thawed out Dr. Oliver Sacks’ "frozen" Parkinson’s patients (a story told in the movie Awakenings). The intoxicating blossoms from the ylang-ylang tree? Anti-fungals used to scent and medicate oil.

As we walk past a purple ti bush, Cox takes a leaf. "This is an anti-inflammatory," he says, scrunching up a piece in his hand. He picks a leaf from the Centella asiatica plant and hands it to me, saying, "This is used in Tonga to heal wounds." Everywhere we turn there are natural healers: ferns that aid recovery from childbirth, pineapple leaves that fight hay fever. It seems every plant has a gift to give. And yet, Cox says ruefully, fewer than one percent of the world’s plants have ever been studied for their medicinal value—a statistic he aims to change.


Cox’s first in-depth experience studying plant pharmacology came in the mid-1980s. At that point in his life, he was a newly minted Harvard biology Ph.D. doing post-doctoral work at UC-Berkeley. But then came a call that his mother was ill with breast cancer, and, with his young family, he moved home to Utah to take care of her. At her side when she died, he promised her that he would look for a cure for her disease in the plants of Samoa. After high school, Cox had served on a mission for the Mormon Church in the South Pacific nation and lived there for two years, long enough to learn the language and develop a deep respect for Samoa’s island culture and self-sustaining ways.

A few months after his mother’s death, Cox again arrived in Samoa, this time on a mission for a medical breakthrough. Soon after he landed, he discovered that Samoa’s rainforests were being cut down and milled to build packing crates for the tuna that was being fished from the country’s waters. Cox, his wife Barbara and their four children moved to the country’s most remote village, a small hamlet named Falealupo on the northwest coast of the island of Savaii. But no place, including Falealupo, was remote enough to escape the logging.

When the bulldozers arrived, Cox realized that his calling had come with them. He was a committed conservationist and a skilled biologist; he spoke fluent Samoan, had a great love for Polynesia and was living right down the road from the logging site. If he wasn’t willing to help Falealupo save its forest, who would be? And so again he found himself on a mission.

Word had come from the capital that the village must raise funds to build a school, and loggers had shown up soon after with an offer of money. The people of Falealupo, with no significant resources at hand, were distraught: Would the government really force them to choose between the forest and their children’s education? Cox offered to help raise the money some other way, and he did. He found the funds, the school was built and the chiefs of Falealupo signed a covenant to protect the forest.


As a mark of gratitude, Cox was bestowed with the title of Nafanua, named after a goddess who in ancient times freed Samoa’s people from oppression and taught them to protect the rainforest. On the international stage, Cox and Falealupo’s chief, Fuiono Senio, were honored for their work with the 1997 Goldman Environmental Award.

That same year, Time magazine recognized Cox for the other work he’d been doing in Samoa—researching herbal medicines in the same plants he’d been working to save. In Falealupo, he had teamed up with Pela Lilo, a woman he describes as "one of the top five greatest healers in Polynesia." Lilo had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and disease, and the two spent many months together, with Lilo as teacher and Cox as student, going over the myriad ways plants are used as medicines in Samoa.

The collaboration didn’t produce what Cox had come for—a treatment for breast cancer—but it did lead to the identification of prostratin, a drug derived from a plant in the poinsettia family that can help protect cells from the HIV virus. Prostratin is now about to begin drug trials, and Cox, determined that those who identified the plant’s healing properties should benefit, recently negotiated a groundbreaking agreement under which Samoa will receive 20 percent of all profits from the drug if it makes it to the marketplace. A portion of the money will go to Falealupo and a portion to Pela Lilo’s family.

"This was the first time a drug developer had ever agreed to give money to indigenous people," Cox says. "It could be millions of dollars a year. When we talked about this in Samoa, they said, ‘Can you use the money to protect rainforests elsewhere?’"

In conversation, Cox returns to the islands time and again—his admiration and concern for Pacific cultures is ever-present. His commitment to islands led him, in 1993, to found Seacology, the world’s only organization dedicated to protecting the cultures and ecosystems of the earth’s 100,000-plus islands. (Its motto: "Saving the world—one island at a time.") A "lean, mean" nonprofit with a small staff, Seacology is designed to be agile and move fast in support of island needs. The organization has thrived: Over the last ten years, it has funded over fifty projects on islands around the world, doing everything from building a kindergarten in Fiji to restoring reefs in Indonesia to creating a hydro-energy system on Borneo. "Islands are the poor stepchildren of continental land masses," says Cox. "We show up and say, ‘We’re here to help.’"

Back in the McBryde Garden on Kauai, Cox fords a stream without getting his cast wet or interrupting his train of thought, then we walk through a grove of rare palms. The sun shines down, and birds call out above us. The land has a deep calm, another gift it seems happy to give to those who spend time with it. Cox is telling me about his latest writing project, a biography of the 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. "He was really the world’s first ethnobotanist," Cox says. "He went up to Lapland in 1732 and traveled alone, unarmed, living with the people. He learned their language and had a tremendous respect for them."Stopping for a moment to point out a bladed clump of hanguana from the Solomon Islands, he continues: "You know, Linnaeus believed that the Garden of Eden existed on an island." Looking around us, the theory seems entirely plausible.

The NTBG’s McBryde, Allerton and Limahuli Gardens on Kauai are open to the public, as are the Kahanu Garden near Hana on Maui and The Kampong in southern Florida. To learn more about the NTBG or to become a member, visit To learn more about Seacology, visit