The medicinal plant ‘olena is difficult for farmers to grow in soil; tissue culture may be the answer

Turmeric, Curcuma longa, also known as Curcuma domestica and locally known as ‘olena, has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes for over 4,000 years.

By Maria McCarthy, Student, Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, animal science track.

Curcuma longa
The rhizome of Curcuma longa (turmeric, ‘olena). Also known as Curcuma domestica. Harvested on Maui, Jan. 2017. Photo by Forest Starr & Kim Starr via flickr.

The use of plants for medicinal purposes has been practiced since man has walked the earth. The practice has changed over the years, as well as the methods of propagating the plants.

Turmeric, Curcuma longa, also known as Curcuma domestica and locally known as ‘olena, has been used for medicinal and culinary purposes for over 4,000 years. The rhizome is the plant organ that contains all the sought out qualities.


‘Olena has been used to treat problems associated with problems of the skin and other organs due to its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties. Over the years the popularity of use of ‘olena has increased along with the value.

‘Olena is considered a “canoe plant” due to being transported by the Polynesians on their canoes and this is how the plant found another home on the Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawaiian medicinal uses varied from ear infection and nasal ailments to purifying the blood. ‘Olena proved to be very therapeutic for vog-related when brewed with other plants.

It’s traditionally used in Hawaiian culture to make a dye for kapa with the rhizome being juiced to get the yellowish-orange color. Dyes were made from flowers and plants to color and make designs on kapa cloth.

Hawaiians considered ‘olena to have mana (spiritual power). Extracted juice from the rhizome are usually mixed with salt water as a cleansing concoction. This mixture is then dipped by a Ti leaf and sprinkled on places, people or things that needed purifying and negativity taken away.


This perennial herbaceous plant is part of the Zingiberaceae family and shows many similar characteristics of growing as the edible ginger. ‘Olena rarely flowers to produce seed, as such this plant is propagated by vegetative means. The growing season is eight months, with a dormancy period between December and April.

‘Olena propagated by rhizomes proves to be problematic due to the increased prevalent pathogens and pests in the soil. This is decreasing the production of ‘olena and causing farmers to have considerable financial losses.

Micro-propagation or also known as tissue culturing is a method of propagation by means of a taking a cutting of plant tissue and growing it in a very controlled sterile media and container. The encapsulated in vitro cutting is grown in a lab where the lighting, temperature and growing media are highly controlled. Plant tissue culture also helps prevent young shoots from harmful pathogens and pests, by ensuring a clean and sterile environment. Micro-propagation of ‘olena is at its infant stages compared to other plants in the Zingiberaceae family, therefore the research and knowledge is still limited.

The choice of propagation technique for this plant needs the extra care and attention for ‘olena to continue to explore its versatility as a medicinal plant.

This article was originally published in the CAFNRM/Agriculture Club Newsletter Nov – Dec 2017 Issue 2.