A CONTRIBUTION TO HMONG MEDICAL ETHNOBOTANY
John Allen Brett
A.A. Arapahoe Community College 1974
B.A. University of Northern Colorado 1978
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Department of Anthropology
This thesis for the Master of Arts degree by
John Allen Brett
has been approved for the,-
Department of Anthropology
Brett, John Allen (M.A., Anthropology)
A Contribution to Hmong Medical Ethnobotany
Thesis directed by Professor Duane Quiatt
This research explored the use of medicinal
plants by the Hmong living 1n the Denver/Boulder area.
The research focused on four aspects of medicinal plant
use: The plants themselves as medicines; the network
of acquisition for obtaining needed or desired plants;
an exploration of the effectiveness of the plants as
medicines and the concept of empirical validation.;
fourth how are the plants integrated with the U.S.
Current thinking in ethnobotanical theory and
methodology is considered as it relates to questions
asked 1n a study of this nature.
The results indicate that plant names are
fairly consistent locally but are not consistent with
names 1n the literature. Some methods of preparation
may enhance the effects of the medicines in the context
of the sicknesses being treated.
The network of acquisition 1s based entirely
on relatives, both in the U.S. and in refugee camps In
Thailand. Plants are acquired as much on the basis of
what 1s available as on need or desire. Many more
plants would be utilized if available.
In cases where the literature is available on
the plants in use, there is a reasonably strong
suggestion of empirical validity. This 1s suggested
based on a cross-cultural survey of the use of plants
as medicines and on the known pharmacological activity
of the chemical components of the plants under
No firm conclusions were drawn on the
integration of Hmong medicinal plant use with the
larger medical system. The research to date indicates
that the use of various medical options available is
based on a pragmatic, culturally consistent system that
allows choices based on the strengths of each option.
The choices made within this system are mediated by the
age of the individual making the decision.
I. INTRODUCTION TO THE HMONG.........................1
II. ETHNOBOTANICAL CONSIDERATIONS.....................7
III. RESEARCH GOALS...................................12
IV. HMONG MEDICINE AND MEDICINAL PLANTS IN THE
V. DATA COLLECTION METHODS..........................19
IX. REFERENCES CITED................................ 83
A. Plant Collection Sheet....................90
B. Hmong Plant Names.........................91
C. Latin Names and their Hmong
Equi val ents.......................... 94
INTRODUCTION TO THE HMONG
The Hmong (also known as Miao or Meo in the
literature before about 1975) are a large (3 million
+), diverse, ethnic group that lives primarily in the
mountainous regions of southern China and northern
Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma)
(Jaafar 1982:61). When the Pathet Lao, who were
closely allied with the North Vietnamese communists,
came to power in Laos in 1975, many Hmong fled the
country and eventually resettled in the U.S. and
elsewhere. For Hmong who had been allied with the
Royal Lao Government (RLG) and the U.S. during the
Vietnam war, the U.S. pullout and the replacement of
the RLG by the Lao People's Democratic Republic (with
the Pathet Lao as the dominant party) left them with
few allies and many enemies. Precise details of what
occurred and why are by-and-large not available. See
Adams and McCoy (1970), Koumarn (1979), Lee (1982), and
Wekkin (1982) for more detailed discussions of the
Hmong involvement in the war and subsequent
difficulties after the downfall of the RLG. The Hmong
population in the U.S. is about 60,000-80,000 with
2,000-3,000 Hmong living in the Denver/Boulder region
(Kham Ko Ly pers. comm.).
There are few detailed ethnographic reports
on the Hmong in Laos. Probably the best and certainly
the most detailed report 1s that by Lemoine (1972).
This is the only published book-length report to my
knowledge. Others include those by Barney (1967,
1979), Koumarn (1979) (more historical than
ethnographic), and Vang (1979). While the Hmong groups
are diverse, there are nonetheless many similarities
among them, so that much of the ethnographic work done
in countries other than Laos is useful, especially 1n
the context of this study. General works from China
Include deBeauclair (1956, 1970), Mottin (1980), and
Ruey (1960); from Thailand, Bernatzlk (1970) (probably
the most detailed general ethnography), Department of
the Army (1970), Geddes (1976) (a very detailed
economic study), Jaafar (1982), Keen (1978), Lewis and
Lewis (1984), and Walker (1982).
Hmong culture has undergone tremendous change
in the last forty years. In Laos this has been largely
the result of almost continuous warfare since World War
II. The Hmong of Thailand have been less affected by
(though not exempt from) the effects of war; but they
have been greatly affected by dramatic population
increases, the concomitant increased shortage of arable
land, and major efforts by the Thai government and
others to Incorporate the Hmong (and other ethnic
groups) Into the national spectrum. The following
cultural description 1s based on ethnographic reports
spanning a forty year period. It should be kept in
mind that this description 1s a composite picture, and
does not represent any one village. This description
is taken from a number of sources: Barney (1969, 1979),
Bernatzik (1970), Chindarsl (1976), deBeauclalr (1970),
Geddes (1970, 1976), Jaafar (1982), Keen (1978),
Kunstadter (1967), Lebar, Hickey, and Musgrave (1964),
Lemoine (1972), Lewis and Lewis (1984), Lyman (1968,
1969), Mottln (1980), and Walker (1982).
The Hmong are by-and-large a migratory
people. In most Instances they engage(d) in slash and
burn agriculture, where a section of forest 1s cleared
at the beginning of the dry season, allowed to dry,
then burned. The crops are generally sown at the
beginning of the rainy season. The fields are used
until harvests become poor due to depletion of soil
nutrients, when new land must be cleared. The
principal crops Include dryland (upland) rice, maize
(often used as animal feed), a variety of vegetables,
and 1n some areas opium. Much attention has been
focused on the growing of opium. For the Hmong, who by
many accounts excelled 1n Its production, it
represented the main (and by some accounts substantial)
source of income (Dessalnt 1972, Geddes 1970, 1976,
Chickens, dogs, pigs, and buffalo and, in
some areas, ponies are the animals most often kept.
The chickens, pigs, and buffalo are frequently used in
ceremonies requiring sacrificial offerings.
Hmong villages are generally built on the
ridges of mountains leading from the summits, usually
at or above one thousand meters. The sites were
initially within easy walking distance of suitable crop
land and had adequate water supplies. Several reasons
have been offered for the Hmong preference for higher
altitude living. The two primary reasons are first
that the lowlands were largely occupied by others,
while the highlands were largely unpopulated, and
second that opium poppies do not grow well in the hot,
moist environment of the lowlands. Other suggested
reasons are that the Hmong have an especially high
susceptibility to malaria which is largely confined to
the lowlands. The generally accepted history of the
Hmong places their origins 1n central China from where
they were driven by the expansionist Han over several
centuries. The Hmong, therefore, primarily out of self
defense kept to the mountain tops where they were safe
from attack and did not compete with their Chinese
Hmong villages vary in size depending on the
quality of the surrounding land. They range from one
or two households, numbering 10 or so people, in a worn
out or newly settled area, to as many as 80 or more
households with several hundred people in residence.
Similarly, the lifespan of a village, perhaps 15-30
years on average depends on the quality, of land
available for farming and the number of people in the
region. The villages are generally made up of several
clans (of which there are about twelve in Thailand and
Laos). The clans, while exogamous, are loosely
structured, large and widespread. An Individual is a
member of a clan by name, but not necessarily by actual
kin ties. Some clans share a cooperative relationship,
while there is antagonism between others. The Hmong
are also divided into several sub-groups, usually
designated by a color or similar descriptive name. The
two main groups 1n Laos and Thailand are the White and
Blue (or Green) (Lewis and Lewis 1984:102). Some
others (who live mostly in China) are the Magpie,
Flowery, Striped, and Cowrie Shell. These divisions
are (were) based on style and color differences in
women's clothing and Unquistlc affiliations (Chindarsi
1976:4). Language differences have been described as
dialectical (ibid.). They are sufficiently different
to have separate dictionaries (Heimbach 1979, Lyman
1974). They have been described to me as mutually
intelligible, similar 1n effect to listening to people
with strong regional accents (Tony Yang pers. comm.,
Geddes 1976:20). (It was clear both during interviews
and in looking over notes that translation was more
difficult for my translators when interviewing Hmong of
Residence patterns are, by preference
patrilocal and patrilineal, with female exogamy the
rule. Marriages, while not ordinarily arranged 1n the
stralct sense of that term, are always orchestrated to
increase and improve clan ties. Upon marriage, women
leave their natal home but do not sever ties, nor do
they necessarily change clan names even though they
become a member of their husband's clan as will their
children. Women are welcome to return to their
parents' home in the event of divorce or widowing.
The religion of the Hmong, until quite
recently when some have become Protestants or
Catholics, is largely animistic with significant
influences from Taoism and Buddism. Much of religious
observance was centered around discerning and
addressing the needs of the gods, spirits, and
This study is about plants, Hmong use of
plants and the meaning of those plants in use. In this
chapter I will consider general aspects of the theory
and methodology of ethnobotanical research.
It will be useful at the outset to consider
some definitions of ethnobotany and how these may
affect theory and methodology of ethnobotanical
research. There are a variety of approaches to the
study of ethnobotany, all of which can be loosely
collected under three broad headings: botanical,
anthropological, and what I will call integrative
(referred to as interdisciplinary by Bernardi [1980:95]
and multidisciplinary by Etkin [1986:2]). An excellent
botanical definition 1s that offered by Bye (1985:375):
From a botanical perspective, a general
working definition of ethnobotany is the
investigation of the biological, including the
ecological bases of interactions (i.e. mutual
influences) and of relationships between plants and
people upon one another.
The anthropological perspective is succinctly
summarized by Ford (1978:44): Ethnobotany "is concerned
with the totality of the place of plants in a culture
and the direct interaction by people with plants"
(emphasis in original). Differences 1n the two
perspectives can be summarized by noting the focus of
research. In botanical research plants are viewed as
natural objects that are used by people. People
therefore are just one (albeit major) factor in the
adaptatlonal response of plants. In anthropological
research plants are viewed as cultural objects that
exist 1n the natural world. The plants are of little
consequence until they are assigned a use and/or
meaning by people.
The consequence of this dichotomy, as pointed
out by Etkin (1986:2) 1s that "the literature of
ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology is largely
botanically uninformed or anthropologically naive". An
integrative or multidisciplinary approach, while
desirable, 1s by most accounts illusory or an ideal not
yet realized (Alcorn 1984:6, Brett n.d., Ford 1985:410,
Etkin 1986:2). Etkin (ibid.) offers what is, in the
context of the present study, the most useful
Ideally, such multidisciplinary studies
would combine the perspectives of: ethno- and
scientific-botanical Identification and
classification; pharmacologic characterization of
plant constituents and their activities; Western
biomedical and nutritional research concerned with
the effects that indigenous medicines and dietaries
have on human health; and behavioral investigations
which interpret plant knowledge and use as part of
the aggregate environmental and sociocultural
contexts within which human-plant interactions are
As this 1s a study of plants used for
medicine it would be useful to consider medicinal
plants* as part of the larger medical system. Medical
systems "emerge from human attempts to survive disease
and surmount death, and from social responses to
Illness and the sick role" (Romanuccl-Ross, Moerman,
and Tancredi 1983:v 11). Klelnman ( 1978:86, 1980:24ff)
takes a similar view from an ecological perspective
considering the various facets of medical systems.
These Include 'external' factors (social, political,
economic, historical, epidemiological and
technological) factors 1n relation to 'Internal'
processes (psycho-physiological, behavioral and
communicative) and medical beliefs which are grounded
within activities 1n social and political structures
and in particular local environmental settings.
This systems approach gives rise to questions
of function: Do the medicines "work" in the biomedical
(etic) and healing (emic) contexts? Why do they work?
What are the active chemical components? What are the
processes of medicinal plant selection (discussed
below)? What 1s the relationship between ritualistic
(shamanist1c) plant use activities and the use of
1 I am, perhaps somewhat arbitrarily, separating out
Hmong medicinal plants from the rest of the plants that
the Hmong are familiar with and use. Whether they make
that distinction 1s not clear from my experience (and
is beyond the scope of this study). Additionally 1t
would appear that medicinal and cooking plants
("herbs") are the only ones actively 1n use in this
medicinal plants by shamans, non-spiritual healers
(medicinal plants specialists) and the community at
large as empirically validated medicines, which plants
are used for what purpose and by whom are they used?
And finally if the same plants are used for different
purposes by different people, are the outcomes or
results the same or do they differ with expectations?
From a broader perspective, to look at plants
within the context of a medical system is to consider
the place of plants as useful objects in the cultural
milieu. How are plants viewed from within a culture?
Are medicinal plants cognitively set apart as special
or unique from food plants, or from those used in
construction? How are such distinctions made? Alcorn
(1981, 1984) discusses this conceptual segregation in
terms of resource perception. What defines a given
plant as a resource? What are the environmental,
2 I am using the term "empirically validated medicines"
to signify those medicines (in this case medicinal
plants) that through continuous or repeated usage have
been found to be active in prevention or curing of a
specific symptom or condition. Presumably (though not
necessarily) this Implies that 1f the medicine were
subjected to western style chemical and pharmacological
testing, it would be similarly validated. This of
course assumes that the medicine in question was used
1n a manner consistent with the usage in a western
clinical setting. Often the medicinal use is tied to a
particular medical system that involves diagnostic and
treatment methods vastly different from Western medical
practices. Within the particular system the medicines
are empirically validated but may not remain so when
tested against the tenets of a different system
(National Acadamy of Sciences 1975, Etkin 1986,
ecological, and cultural variables that determine value
or usefulness for a given plant? How might resource
perception be reflected (1f 1t is) 1n the naming or
categorization of the plant? (See Berlin, Breedlove,
and Raven 1974 for additional discussion of this last
The Importance of botanical (medicinal)
knowledge "as a domain of knowledge Important for
adaptive success" (Alcorn 1984:4) should be considered,
within an evolutionary perspective. How does a group's
knowledge and utilization of medicinal plant resources
affect the differential survival of the Individuals
within the group and of the group as a whole? What is
the belief system surrounding the plants, e.g. are they
perceived as magical in their action or are they viewed
in a more pragmatic (empirically validated) fashion?
"Thus, the selection of plants for medicinal, dietary,
and other uses involves a complex integration of
meaning, intent, and expectations which are variably
articulated according to context and which may differ
appreciably cross-culturally" (Etkin 1986:4).
This research was designed as a pilot study
of Hmong medicinal plant use 1n the Denver/Boulder area
from four perspectives. First Involved examination of
the plants themselves as medicine: What are their names
(Hmong and Latin binomial)? What are they used for
(what conditions treated)? How are they prepared and
administered (what parts are used, how much of each, 1n
what combinations, what dosage, etc.)? How 1s the
plant grown and propagated? This last point 1s a small
but potentially significant one. In Laos people 1n
need of plant materials simply went out and collected
or harvested as plants as needed in the dooryard
garden, field-edge, or forest community. In Denver
these tropical plants are not winter hardy and usually
must be pot grown. I suspect that there may be a
definite selection process operating that determines
what plants will get to this country and be maintained.
Horticulturally, herbaceous (non-woody) plants are
generally easier to propagate for the non-professional
and are more amenable to pot culture than woody plants
(trees and shrubs). Further it might be argued that
those plants that propagate readily (herbaceous or not)
will be favored over those that are not easily
propagated. Plants that are not readily propagated are
less likely to survive, come into common use or be
maintained. Thus non-human factors, apparently
unrelated to medical considerations, may have a
significant effect in determining which plants are
available for use.
A second perspective involved examination of
the network of acquisition. Each of the women I spoke
with had a collection of plants that she acquired in
the process of settling 1n Denver. How did each woman
decide which plants she needed or wanted? From whom
did she get them and where did they come from
originally? Additionally, I was interested to see 1f
the Hmong had incorporated any local plants into their
The third perspective involved examination of
the concept of empirical validation. Are the plants in
this study used as medicines because they have, through
time, been found to induce specific responses when used
to treat an illness or symptom?
Finally, the fourth perspective involved
examination of the cultural context of medicinal plant
use (Bernardi 1980:97) by the Hmong 1n the U.S. The
focus here was on two interrelated concerns, a) How
has medicinal plant use (as part of the medical system)
changed from Laos to the U.S.? b) How do the plants-
as-med1c1ne interface with medicines available to the
Hmong through the usual channels in this country? How
does this plant use (medical system) interface with the
dominant U.S. medical system?
There is a substantial body of literature on
medical systems (e.g. Dunn 1976, Leslie 1976, Klelnman
1980, 1978, Kunstadter 1978a, 1978b, Romanucci-Ross et.
al. 1983). Relatively little has been done on
medicinal plants within the context of ,medical systems
and their impact on these systems (but see Etkin 1986,
Alcorn 1981, Bye 1986, Browner 1985, Etkin and Ross
1982). I view this as very fertile research territory.
The Interactions of people, plants, culture and the
physical environment, considered within an evolutionary
framework, could be viewed as a biobehavloral-
People exercising their empirical skills will
choose specific plants to meet certain defined needs
(e.g. food, medicine, construction). The plants by
virtue of their chemical and physical properties will
have a distinct influence on this selection process
(Bye 1985, Sarukhan 1985). It 1s possible that there
could be mutual evolutionary selection pressure by and
on both plants and people in response to those factors
for which the plants were chosen and the effect the
plants have on the human population. The effects
produced by the plant may be desirable (those for which
the plant was intended) or incidental.
In terms of the present study, it would be
useful to look at the efficacy of the plants as a
selection factor in bringing them to the U.S. Why were
these particular plants considered Important, brought
to the U.S. and maintained here? (The above mentioned
factors about ease of propagation and cultivation need
to be considered 1n this context.) What are the
chemical constituents of the medicines prepared, and
are these likely to have effects additional or
antagonistic to the ones desired (Etkin 1986:5)? What
is the Hmong conception of a medicine? What "mental
processes" are involved as a person procures, prepares
and administers a medicine? Does the name applied to a
piant-as-medicine contain any information,
linguistically analyzed, that enhances our knowledge of
the reasons for choosing and using or valuing these
plants? Does the process of naming set these plants
apart from others similar to them in the mind of the
Hmong healer? In what way does the name define the
plant and its uses, i.e. does the name imply the use
and are plants named differently for different uses?
Does an admixture of plants take on a name of its own
separate from its component ingredients?
HMONG MEDICINE AND MEDICINAL PLANTS IN THE LITERATURE
It appears that to date no studies have
focused exclusively on Hmong medicine, but most
ethnographies and articles dealing with Hmong religion
discuss Illness and healing (e.g. Bernatzi k 1970,
Lemoine 1972, Vidal and Lemoine 1970). It could be
argued that there 1s not a neat dichotomy between
religion and medicine 1n Hmong culture. Illness is
attributed to several possible agents: Chindarsl
(1976:53) mentions a person's soul wandering off and
demands made by the soul of a dead relative. Bernatzik
(1970: 218ff) found that illness is caused by a
person's soul not being able or allowed to return when
it goes wandering (as souls are wont to do, especially
at night, when they may get lost or be accosted by evil
spirits). Other times it is considered the vengeance
of evil spirits that gives rise to disease and illness
- especially those that are fatal and/or epidemic
(ibid. p.312). Illness is thus tied to the belief
system about the supernatural. Lyman (1968:4) argues
that "to attempt a dichotomy... between the concepts of
'magic' [healing] and 'rel1gion'...would border on
doctrinaire positivism". Elsewhere (ibid, p.8) when
discussing the role of the shaman he argues that "since
only the [shaman] can diagnose and treat illness, the
priestly and therapeutic functions among the Miao
[Hmong] are thereby Identical". Beliefs about specific
causes and cures of illness vary among the clans (and
presumably among the various subdivisions) of the Hmong
(Lewis and Lewis 1984:124, deBeauclaire 1970:101,
There are three sources that ..discuss Hmong
plant use in general with some mention of medicinal
plants in particular (Vidal 1959, Vidal and Lemoine
1970, and Lemoine 1972). In all cases the discussion
is about plant names and uses 1n general with
discussion of medicinal plants secondary to this
broader goal. Thus the context of medicinal plants is
little discussed. Plants are a fundamental aspect of
Hmong culture, constituting the basis of the diet (rice
and vegetables), the primary construction materials
(wood, bamboo, and thatch), and at one time, 1n some
areas, the primary source of Income (opium). Plants
cultivated, semi-cultivated (or semi-wild, e.g. field
edge, abandoned home-sites and fields, "weeds"), and
wild are utilized Intensively (Vidal and Lemoine
Basic knowledge of medicinal plants used for
common ailments 1s held by most Hmong (Lewis and Lewis
1984:133). Men [and women] who specialize in the
preparation and administration of medicine, but who do
not concern themselves with the spiritual aspects,
constitute a second group. Their knowledge of
medicinal plants is deeper and covers a broader range
of illnesses than that held by the majority of the
population. According to Bernatzik (1970:316) shamans
are often skilled in the use of medicines 1n addition
to their role as diviners and interveners 1n matters
spiritual. These medicines "work" against most of the
common complaints. It is only after these fall, or 1f
no medicinal cures are known do the Hmong resort to
curing in the ritual sense (ibid, p.315). As I
interpret the literature, medicines are often used to
treat symptoms, while the activities of the shaman
address the cause. Expanding on this slightly, Lemolne
(1972:87) states that basic knowledge of medicinal
plants is available to all. There are, though,
"herbalists" who specialize 1n medicine that is
primarily plant based, whose knowledge 1s secret and
passed on to students upon payment of a fee. These
people expect to be paid for their services by the
recipients. Their knowledge of medicinal plants 1s
greater than that of the average person (Ibid. p.88).
Vidal and Lemoine (1970:16) state that a small number
("un petite nombre") of these plants are the special
property of "herboristes", while Lemoine (1972:88)
implies that the majority of medicinal plant knowledge
1s only to be gotten through payment and working with
an herbalist over an extended period.
that, to a large degree, begins to establish a cultural
context for medicinal plants and medicinal plant
knowledge. This knowledge constitutes one part of the
larger medical system.
All interviews were conducted in the homes
and/or gardens of the informants. All interviews with
Hmong healers were arranged with the Invaluable help of
Kham Ko Ly of the.Asian Pacific Development Center and
Kalusa Ly of the International Refugee Center.
Translation for most of the Interviews was provided by
Tony (Thoa) Yang. Whenever possible the interviews and
translations were taped. Initial Interviews using the
plant collection sheets were not taped. Seven people
were interviewed for this study. They were chosen
based on their knowledge of, and continuing use of
medicinal plants. The first interview followed the
format of the plant collection sheet. Subsequent
interviews sought clarification and elaboration on
themes developed during the first Interviews and
focussed more on the use of medicinal plants 1n the
Collection of plant materials presented a
number of problems. In order to properly Identify
unknown plants 1t is necessary to have whole plants
(roots, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits) or enough
parts (usually leaves, flowers and fruits) plus
accurate description. The usual process is to dig up
whole plants, when small enough, or collect
representative samples, plus notes. This works well
when the plants are part of the natural environment and
abundant. The difficulty in this study was that the
entire population was often represented by one or two
plants in a six Inch pot.
In order to obtain material for future
identification I asked for a cutting or division of
each of the plants discussed. In most cases this met
with ready agreement. These cuttings and divisions
were labeled to correspond with the plant collection
sheets. I then attempted to propagate the plants, not
always with success. In such cases, if I were not able
to re-collect the plants they remain unidentified.
Identification was accomplished in two ways.
In the last 25 years or so the Chinese have done a
tremendous amount of research on medicinal plants and
folk medicine (Duke and Ayensu 1985:34). They have
made a great effort to integrate folk and medicinal
plant practices with Western style medicine (ibid.),
though not without considerable debate and difficulty
(National Acadamy of Sciences 1975). This integration
Includes plants used by the "National Minorities", of
which the Hmong is one, numbering about two and a half
million people in southwest China. Consequently there
1s a very large body of literature on medicinal plants,
some of which has been translated into English (U.S.
DHEW 1974). Other works have drawn on this literature
to present important aspects of Chinese medicine and
medicinal plant use that are culturally appropriate to
Western scientific thinking (Bensky and Gamble 1986,
Duke and Ayensu 1985, Perry 1980, Hu 1980). These
works contain excellent line drawings that were useful
in a number of cases in making init1al ,identifications.
The second method for identification and
verification was to compare the plants I collected with
the living and herbarium collections at the Denver
Botanic Gardens and the New York Botanic Gardens
(Bronx, NY). All of the flowered plants were
definitively assigned to species 1n this manner. A
third method that allowed several initial
identifications was the comparison of the Hmong names I
collected with those collected in Laos by Vidal and
Lemolne (1970). Voucher specimens have been deposited
at Denver Botanic Gardens and New York Botanic Gardens.
A brief mention should be made of the
transcription of the Hmong language. Throughout most
of their history the Hmong have had an oral tradition.
Only recently have attempts been made to develop a
usable written language, largely through the efforts of
missionaries. I will mention only that work which was
directed toward Romanizatlon (English and French).
There have been efforts at transcribing into Thai,
Chinese, and Lao scripts, but these do not bear
directly on this study.
There are, to my knowledge, two
transcriptions of the Hmong language Into Roman
characters: that developed by Barney and Smalley (1952,
1953) and that by Lyman (1974). The former 1s the most
widely used and most readily understood by the non-
linguist. It 1s also less precise than that of Lyman,
in part because 1t was developed more for popular use
than for I1nqu1st1c analysis (Helmbach I969:x1i).
The main differences between the two systems
can be understood by looking at how they have chosen to
represent the several tones of the Hmong language.
Lyman (1974) has used a series of diacritical marks to
represent placement and type of tone. Barney and
Smalley (1953) use a series of standard Romanized
letters appended at the end of each syllable to
represent the tones.
Briefly, Hmong syllables consist of a
consonant constituent, a vowel constituent and a tone
constituent (Heimbach I969:xi1). Both the consonant
and vowel components can be compound or simple. For
example, the White Hmong word for red, "liab" has a
simple consonant component (1), a compound vowel
component (1a), and the final tone component (b, a high
level tone). The symbols designating tone are
represented by consonants 1n the final position because
there are no Hmong syllables ending 1n a consonant
component. There are seven letters (consonants) used
to represent tones: b, j, v, s, g, m, d.
This system 1s easy to learn and use, but is
not without difficulties. Many of the plant names
listed that appear to be different are the same but are
variably transcribed. This 1s partly the result of
slightly different pronunciations by the informants and
partly due to different transcriptions by the
The Information 1n the following tables is
arranged 1n alphabetical order by Hmong names. The
number in parenthesis following each name is the
collection number and corresponds to the plant
collection sheet.. Several plants have question marks
associated with the Latin name. In these cases I am
relatively sure of the plants' Identities but have not
yet been able to verify them. Question marks preceding
the name Indicate that the entire name 1s 1n question,
while question marks following indicate that only the
species designation is not fully settled.
Tables 1-38 present all of the material
relating to the botanical perspective. A few comments
are 1n order relating to the presentation. A number of
plants have only a Hmong name or a designation to genus
level, and a usage. These are the plants that to date
have not been identified. Virtually all of the
literature on medicinal plants (all plants for that
matter) is tied to the Latin binomial (or the
pharmaceutical derivitive). Without a firm
Identification, Tittle else can be done with the plant.
Many of the plants do not have English common
names, nor do they have translations from Hmong into
English. Many of the words and phrases were unfamiliar
to my translators. Others, when translated literally
made no sense in English. My conclusion is that these
names are culture specific (perhaps in some cases
specific to an individual) and are thus untranslatable
An example in English might be "Christmas cactus". If
a group has not been exposed to Christmas (and the
attendant traditions) or to cacti (a group of plants
originally endemic to the Americas) then the name is
There was a suprising lack of congruence
between the plant names and uses I collected and
identified and those listed by Vidal and Lemoine
(1970). In only four cases were plants I collected
also listed 1n Vidal and Lemoine. In only two cases
were the uses similar to those I was told about by
informants. Two possible explanations come to mind.
The primary one 1s the small size of my sample (55
plants 1n about 30 taxa). Several factors contribute
to this: First, the vagaries of the selection process
and travel significantly reduced the number of plants
available for use here; Second, the small number of
Hmong actively using and maintaining medicinal plants;
and third, the small number of plants that I have
collected, relative to Vidal and Lemoine (1970).
The other possible explanation is a partial
one. Those plants that have not yet been Identified
may be "endemic" to the Hmong and thus more likely to
appear 1n a 11st on Hmong ethnobotany, whereas more
common plants (e.g. those common to Chinese medicine)
might be less likely to show up 1n a listing such as
Vidal and Lemolne (1970). These may be acquired 1n
transit through refugee camps, etc. This does not
explain the lack of congruence between Hmong names I
collected and those listed in Vidal and Lemolne.
Hmong names (collection number): Bliag deg (15a), Cag
daj (52), Pawj 1a (27), Tw ntses ? (14)
Latin: Acorus calamus L. Araceae
English: Calamus, sweet flag
Chinese1: Ch'ang-p'u (Pa1-ch'ang)
Pharmaceutical: Rhizoma Calami
Hmong uses: Used 1n decoction for upset stomach with
Kuab nplais dib (13a) and Kuab nplaib taub (14a).
Drunk in decoction alone 1t will "loosen tight veins"
(15a). Will relieve Indigestion as a result of "being
very hungry and eating too fast"; a small piece of
rhizome 1s peeled and eaten raw (14). Can be used to
treat elevation sickness; drink in decoction upon
return from high altitude (52). Used to relieve fever
(when no sweating has occurred); three leaves boiled,
one-half cup drunk, the remainder 1s sprinkled over the
Uses In the literature: Hu (1980:5) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:104) Perry (1980:33) Lewis and Elvin-Lewis
(1977:273) Duke (1985:14) U.S. DHEW (1974:631) Kimura
and Kimura (1981:263) Uses Include treatment of
dyspepsia, gastritis, nausea; with carminlative
effects, relief of chest constriction, diaphoretic,
tonic, in a bath stimulates blood circulation ("loosens
tight veins"?), and stomachic. Potentially active
chemicals include Asarone: anticonvulsant, CNS
depressant, hypothermic, psychoactive; Acorlc acid:
anticonvulsant; Camphor: carminiative, stimulant,
anesthetic; Choline: Upotrophlc; Eugonol: analgesic,
anesthetic, larvicidal; Methyl eugenol: sedative;
Azulene: antiinflammatory, antipyretic; Cineole:
1 The Chinese transliteration is the Romanized spelling
of the Chinese Characters. In all cases I have
followed Hu (1980) in these spellings as there is a
great deal of variation among various sources, though
they all approximate the same thing. It is this name
under which much of the literature from China is
organized. The Pharmaceutical name is the name under
which much of the pharmacological research is
expectorant; Linalool: anticonvulsant, spasmolytic;
Hmong (collection number): Cua tob ntsuab (39), Kua
txob ntxuab (2)
Latin: Dicliptera chinensis ? (2) (L.) Nees, and
Dicliptera sp. (39) Acanthaceae
Pharmaceutical: Ramus Dicllpterae
Hmong uses: Used in combination with several other
plants as a tonic. In one case (2) it is used as a
tonic for men ("no energy"); Rag nyiy liab (1), Kua
txob ntxuab (2), Tshuaj paj ntaub (3), Kuab nplais dib
(4), and Jub mos lu1j (5) are mixed together, stuffed
into the cavity of a whole chicken, boiled, then eaten
twice daily for two or three days by the affected man.
In the other case (39) it is used as a tonic for males
or females ("tired, worn-out, loss of appetite"). It
1s used in combination with several other plants: Ntiv
(37), Tshuab rhog (38), Cua tob ntsuab (39), Pawj qab
(40), prepared as above, with the warning that the
mixture may cause diarrhea 1n some people.
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:53) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:54) Perry (1980:2) U.S.DHEW (1974:578)
Reportedly good for heat exhaustion, and stimulates
energy and blood flow. No pharmacologically active
chemicals were noted.
Hmong (collection number): Huab atsib, Tsam plab, Txis
haum tx1b (21) were all collected from the same
informant at different seasons of the year and, to the
best of my knowledge, refer to the same plant. This
name 1s spelled Txiv fuab txhib in Vidal and Lemolne
(1970:41) and refers to a different plant in the same
genus (Rhus chinensis Miller). This is a case where a
local (and common) plant was apparently substituted for
a similar one available in Laos.
Latin: Rhus typhina L. Anacardiaceae
English: Staghorn sumac
Chinese: Yen-fu-shu-pa1-p'1 (Rhus chinensis) This 1s
the name for the bark of the tree which 1s the nearest
equivalent to the parts I found 1n use. All parts of
the plant are used and each has a separate name.
Pharmaceutical: Cortex Rhi Chinensis
Hmong uses: For "growth from left side, upset stomach"
(shingles?), chips of the wood are decocted and the
Uses in the literature: (Rhus chinensis) Vidal and
Lemolne (1970:41) Hu (1980:177) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:72) Perry (1980:16) Lewis and Elvin-Lewis
(1977:292) Bensky and Gamble (1986:558) Kimura and
Kimura (1981:127) U.S.DHEW (1974:845) Related uses
include treatment of stomachache and poisonous
swellings. Pharmacologically active chemicals include
Gallic acid: antitumor, astringent, and bacteriostatic
Hmong (collection number): Juab dev vwm (15), also
collected as Zuab lab.
Latin: Solanum nigrum L. Solanaceae
English: Black nightshade (lit. bitter vegetable)
Pharmaceutical: Herba Solanl Nigri
Hmong uses: This Informant used the plant as a potherb
only, as do many Hmong judging from the number of
gardens 1n which 1t was growing (though it 1s a
vigorous weed 1n some areas). Even so it has a
considerable history as a medicinal plant in Aslan
cultures and I suspect 1t was (1s) used by other Hmong
healers. It should be noted that this plant exhibits
considerable 1ntra-specif1c variation, with some
varieties being quite toxic and others being rather
benign (Duke 1985:449). This 1n part explains the
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:66) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:613) Perry (1980:394-5) Lewis and Elvin-Lewis
(1977:136, 169) Duke (1985:449) U.S.DHEW (1974:688)
Hmong (collection number): Jub mos luij (5)
Latin: Sedum sp. Crassulaceae
Hmong uses: Used in a tonic for men discussed above
under Cua tob ntsuab (39).
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Kaj 11 ab (not collected,
plant too smal1)
Latin: Iresine Herbstii Hook. Amaranthaceae
English: Beefsteak plant (lit. bright red)
Hmong uses: As a tonic for men and women, either alone
or in combination with the plants discussed under Cua
tob ntsuab (39).
Uses 1n the literature: None. This plant appears to be
an adopted, or substituted medicine, 1n that 1t does
not appear in any of the volumes consulted for this
work, though I have reports of it 1n refugee camps 1n
Thailand (Pake, pers. comm.) This 1s not an uncommon
house plant and Is stocked in greenhouses, etc. and so
1s readily available 1f someone were to need it.
Hmong (collection number): Koj tawm os dawb (25), Juab
taw o (8), Taub kib (Blue Hmong), or Qua taw os (White
Latin: ? Oenanthe javanica (Blume) DC. Aplaceae
(Umbel 11 ferae)
English: Oenanthe, water celery
Pharmaceutical: Herba Oenanthis
Hmong. uses: Several uses were mentioned for this, many
of them Involving the female reproductive system.
Menstrual cramps, and as a "refresher" after
menstruation (25) are treated by bruising three leaves
between palms, pouring boiling water over the leaves,
cooling and drinking. Postpartum, when the woman is
"low in blood", low in energy, this herb is cooked with
chicken and fed to woman to regain energy and replenish
blood(51). Can also be used to help in determining sex
of desired child. If a girl is desired the leaves only
are prepared as 1n first use, if a boy is the choice,
the root only 1s used 1n the same fashion(25). Also
used as a seasoning with chicken soup(8) along with
N11v(7) and Muaj tsuas(6).
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:106) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:89) Perry (1980:418) Lewis and Elvin-Lewis (0.
sarmentosa 1977 :281) Duke (0. phel1andriurn 1985:2437
U.S.DHEW (0. stolonifera 1974:1529) Uses include
treatment of metrorrhagia, has hemostatic, and
emmenogogue properties. Pharmacologically active
chemicals include Myristlcin: diuretic, hallucinogen,
insecticide; Rutin: antledemic, antiinflammatory,
anti thrombogenic, hypoten si ve, spasmolyti c,
Hmong (collection number): Kuab nplaib taub (14a), Kuab
nplals taub loj, Sham mob kab (White Hmong) (50), Plooj
tuaj kuag (11)
Latin: Sedum spectabile Boreau (S. erythrostictum Miq.;
S. alboroseum Baker) Crassulaceae
English: Sedum (11t. leaf of pumpkin)
Chinese: Chlng T'len
Hmong uses: Used 1n conjunction with Kuab nplals dib
(14a), see above. Also cooked with chicken or mixed
with an egg, steamed and eaten to strengthen the fetus.
Must not get plant sap in eyes or blindness will result
(50). One Ingredient for seasoning chicken soup (11).
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Kwab plal dlb (28), Quab
npcias dib (42), Tshuab paj ntaub (33), Thuaj paj ntaub
Latin: Sedum makinoi ? Maxim. Crassulaceae
Chinese: Ma ya'ban zhi
Hmong uses: Used as a tonic for pregnant woman and
fetus and to treat indigestion. In all cases three
bunches of leaves are chopped, stirred into a raw egg,
steamed and eaten (28). Used to maintain pregnancy,
and to Improve fetal health, mix with Luag law (41) and
an egg which 1s then steamed and eaten (42). The
leaves and stems are cut Into tiny pieces, mixed with
an egg, steamed and eaten as a cough medicine (33). In
the case of (3) it 1s used as part of a tonic for men
discussed under Cua tob ntsuab (39).
Uses in the literature: Duke and Ayensu (1985:268) U.S.
Hmong (collection number): Luag law (41)
Latin: Polygonaceae ?
Hmong uses: As an aid to setting and healing broken
bones the leaves are mashed together with a chicken
embyro and wrapped 1n a bandage over affected area.
Also very good for sprains, Insect bites, and rashes;
mash leaves and apply to affected area.
Uses 1n the literature:
Hmong (collection number) Muaj tsuas (6)
Hmong uses: Used as a seasoning for chicken soup along
with Ntiv (7) and Juab taw o (8).
Uses 1n the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Ncas I1ab (18)
Hmong uses: Decoction used to relieve menstrual cramps
and discomfort. Must not be used when pregnant
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Ncaug dub (35)
Latin: ?Curcul1go orchloldes? Gaertn. Amaryll1daceae
English: Golden eye grass, Black musll
Chinese: Hs1en-mao (C. capitulata=Ta-ti-tsung-ken)
Pharmaceutical: Rhizoma Curculiginls
Hmong uses: For men or women who have no energy,
getting thin, leaves are used 1n decoction
Uses 1n the literature: Hu (1980:40, 115) Duke and
Ayensu (1985:67) Perry (1980:12-13) Lewis and Elvin-
Lew1s (1977:354) Bensky and Gamble (1986:499) U.S DHEW
(1974:679) For treatment of lassitude, neurasthemla,
as a rejuvenator and tonic, for general disability, and
wasting diseases. Pharmacologically active chemicals
include Tannin: antldiurrhetic, bactericide, viriclde
Hmong (collection number): Nhau Hal (10) This may be
the same plant as Ncas liab (18) and Nyuj txhawg 11 ab
Hmong uses: Rubbed on rashes that have spread or gotten
infected from persistent scratching.
Uses 1n the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Nt1v (37, 7)
Hmong uses: One of several ingredients in a tonic, see
Cua tob ntsuab (Picliptera sp., 39) for full
description of uses. Also used for seasoning chicken
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Nyuj txhawg 11 ab (31)
Hmong uses: To treat swollen mass (cancer?) a bunch of
leaves are mashed together, wrapped in paper, steamed
"under the fire" until very hot, then placed on the
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Pawj qab (40), Poj quaib
Latin: Acorus qramineus Soland. Araceae
English: Chinese sweet grass, Rock sweet flag
Pharmaceutical: Herba Acori Graminei
Hmong uses: As one ingredient in a general tonic, see
Cua tob ntsuab for full description. Also used as
seasoning in chicken soup (12).
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:100) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:105) Perry (1980:34) Bensky and Gamble (1986:594)
Kimura and Kimura (1981:264) U.S DHEW (1974:675) Used
as a tonic, sedative, stomachic, increases digestive
secretions and relaxes intestinal spasms. Chemical
components are probably very similar to those listed
for A. calamus (Bliag deg 15a)
Hmong (collection number): Plauj tsua (46)
Latin: Saxifraga stolonlfera Meerb. Saxifragaceae
English: Strawberry geranium, Strawberry begonia
Pharmaceutical: Herba Saxifragae
Hmong uses: This plant 1s used as an aid 1n maintaining
women's reproductive health. It helps regulate
menstruation in cases of amenorrhea and Irregular
menstruation. It 1s also used with Xyab tsim (47) as a
treatment for infertility. Plauj tsua is used one
month before Xyab tsim to clean away the "dead blood",
and cleanse the body. Xyab tsim is then used to
encourage pregnancy. The best way to administer this
medicine 1s to add the leaves to boiling water, which
in turn is added to water 1n which rice has been
cooked, and then drink.
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:42) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:592) Perry (1980:379) U.S. DHEW (1974:769) Klmura
and Kimura (1981:81) Other species (S. catalaunica and
S. longifolia) are regarded as abortifacient.
Pharmacologically active chemicals include Arbutin:
diuretic, antibacterial; Caffeic acid: choleretic,
Hmong (collection number): Pua toj 1ia (23), also
collected as Tshaus pab thuo 11a from the same
informant at a different time.
Latin: Sedum sp.? Crassulaceae
English: Sedum (lit. medicine of needlework)
Hmong uses: Used in decoction with Pua toj tshuab (22)
for treatment of 1n utero fetal distress or illness
Uses 1n the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Pua toj tshuab (22), also
collected as Tshaus pab thuo tsua from the same
informant at a different time.
Latin: Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides Lam. (H. rotundifolla
Roxb.) Apiaceae (Umbel!1 ferae)
Pharmaceutical: Herba HydrocotyHs
Hmong uses: Used for fetal Illness, see Pua tob 11a
above for description.
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:130) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:86) Perry (1980:417) Lewis and Elv1n-Lew1s
(1977:256, H. bonariensis) U.S. DHEW (1974:929)
Postpartum fever reduction is the only related use.
Pharmacologically active chemical is Asiaticoside:
Hmong (collection number): Pum hub nyeg (16a), Pwm
Latin: Lamlaceae (Labitae), Salvia ?
Hmong uses: Used in decoction for sore throat,
shortness of breath, and heartburn (16a). Used in
decoction as a treatment for high, persistent fever in
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Quag tshais (blue), Tshlas
nqav (white) (49)
Hmong uses: In decoction (?) when a baby eats something
"not good for the stomach", upset stomach.
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Rag nyiy liab (1)
Hmong uses: See Cua tob ntsuab (39) for discussion of
Uses 1n the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Sab txhlm khaus (30)
Hmong uses: No use recorded
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Sab txhim mab (29)
Hmong uses: As an aid for broken bones and bruises, the
leaves are mashed Into small pieces, steamed, wrapped
in a cloth and applied to affected area while still
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Suv tav tsev (53)
Latin: Achillea millefolium L. Asteraceae (Composltae)
Pharmaceutical: Herba Achllleae
Hmong uses: Fresh leaves are mashed and placed on
Uses 1n the literature: Hu (1980:168) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:143) Perry (1980:82) Lewis and Elv1n-Lew1s
(1977:348, 258, 306, 307, 338) Duke (1985:9) U.S. DHEW
(1974:571, A. siberica) Kimura and Kimura (1981:221)
This 1s a thoroughly researched plant with a long
history of use in many cultures. Uses Include: dry
herb for bleeding, fresh herb for bites, sores, and
wounds, with astringent, analgesic, antiinflammatory,
and bactericidal properties, for use with sore throat,
toothache, abscesses, and snakebites.
Pharmacologically active chemicals include Camphor:
anesthetic, antipruritic, antiseptic, carminative,
stimulant; Cineole: brochitis, expectorant,,
insectifuge, laryngitis, pharyngitis, rhinitis; Rutin:
antiedemlc, antiinflammatory, vasopressor; Salicylic
acid: analgesic, antiinflammatory; Chamazulene:
anodyne, antiinflammatory, antiphlogistic, germicide,
Hmong (collection number): Tauj dub (44)
Latin: Cymbopogon citratus (DC. ex Nees) Stapf. (or C.
Nardus [L.] Rendle.) Poaceae (Gramlneae)
Pharmaceutical: Herba Cymbopogonis
Hmong uses: As an aid to healing broken bones, snake
and other poisonous animal bites, 1t is mashed to
pieces, placed on affected area and secured with a
cloth. Also used as a seasoning.
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:38) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:498) Perry (1980:164-5) Lewis and Elvin-Lewls
(1977:83, 94, 369) Used 1n a bath to reduce swelling,
and Improve circulation, and to treat sprains and
rheumatic afflictions; also used as an insecticide and
disinfectant; can cause contact dermatitis (cltronella
oil). Pharmacologically active chemicals Include
Eugenol: analgesic, antiseptic, anesthetic, fungicidal,
larvlcldal; Furfural: fungicidal, germicidal; Linalool:
anticonvulsant, spasmolytic; Terpineol: antial1ergenic,
Hmong (collection number): Tshuab kua si (43)
Hmong uses: Used in conjunction with Quab npcias dib
(42). See above for this use. Leaves used to massage
the body as part of removing a curse that has been
placed on an individual.
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Tshuaj quab (26)
English: (lit. Sour medicine)
Hmong uses: "Good for men", restores strength and
energy after sex; three branches with leaves are mixed
with a raw egg, steamed and eaten.
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Tx1v ntou t1ab (16)
Latin: Riclnls communis L. Euphorbiaceae
English: Castor bean
Chinese: Pe1-ma, Ts'ao-ma-yu
Pharmaceutical: Herba, Semen, et Oleum R1c1n1
Hmong uses: For relief of joint pain, the leaves are
heated slightly over a fire and placed directly over
the affected part.
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:86, 139) Duke and
Ayensu (1985:311) Perry (1980:151) Lewis and Elvln-
Lew1s (1977: 135, 253, 271, 282) Duke (1985:408) U.S.
DHEW (1974:919) Klmura and Kimura (1981:110) Heated
leaves applied to gout, swellings, rheumatism,
headache, to rub stiffness out of joints. No
pharmacologically active chemicals noted.
Hmong (collection number): Txiv puv luj (45)
Latin: Aloe barbadensls Mill. (A. vera (L.) Webb and
Berth.) LiHaceae This name refers to Ananus cosmosus
(Stlckm.) Merr. (pineapple) in Vidal and Lemolne
(1970:47) which has a roughly similar appearance, but
different use (food).
English: Medicinal Aloe, burn plant
Pharmaceutical: Herba Aloes
Hmong uses: The juice is rubbed on burns. The
informant who provided me with this plant and treatment
assured me that she learned of, and had used the same
plant in Laos, though had gotten this particular plant
Uses in the literature: Hu (1980:64) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:326) Perry (1980:233-4) Lewis and Elv1n-Lew1s
(1977:336-7, 283, 344, 364) Duke (1985:31) Bensky and
Gamble (1986:171) Kimura and Kimura (1981:234)
Successfully used to treat radiation burns and by
extension other burns; demulcent, emollient. No
pharmacologically active chemicals noted.
Hmong (collection number): Zuab rau nees (48) This is
the same plant as Kab raus (20), discussed above.
Hmong uses: The leaves are mashed up, applied to wrists
and ankles and held in place by a cloth wrap as a
treatment for symptoms of malaria.
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): Xyab ts1m (47)
Hmong uses: See Plauj tsua (46) above for
of the uses of this plant.
Uses in the literature:
Hmong (collection number): No name collected (17)
Latin: Datura Mete! L.? Solanaceae
Chinese Yang-chin-hua (Man-t'o-lo-hua)
Pharmaceutical: Flos Datura
Hmong uses: Used for joint pain; the leaves are mashed,
placed against the affected part and held 1n place with
Uses 1n the literature: Hu (1980:168) Duke and Ayensu
(1985:606) Perry (1980:391-2) Lewis and Elvln-Lewis
(1977:223, 276, 330, 395, 402, 419-22, 423-425) Duke
(1985:158-162) U.S DHEW (1974:887) Klmura and Klmura
(1981:199-200) Uses and properties Include anesthetic,
anodyne, resolvent, mitlgant, leaves applied for
rheumatic pain. Pharmacologically active chemicals are
few but powerful. Atropine: analgesic; Hyoscyamlne:
analageslc; Scopolamine: analgesic, antiinflammatory;
Briefly restated, the goals of this research
were to explore the following areas of Hmong medicinal
plant use 1n the Denver/Boulder area:
The botanical perspective or the plants-as-
medicines: What are the names of the plants (Hmong,
Latin, English)? What are they used for? How are they
prepared and administered, etc.?
A small (and difficult) part was to determine
the network of acquisition. Where did the plants come
from and how did they get here? Why were these
particular plants chosen and maintained? What factors
are involved in the selection and maintenance of the
The third general category was to test the
concept of empirical validation. Is there any way to
verify that these plants have pharmacological activity
in treating the conditions for which they are being
Finally an effort was made to determine how
the Hmong medicinal plants (and by extension Hmong
medicine more generally) are being integrated with the
Denver/Boulder area health care system.
Earlier I noted the disparity between the
Hmong plant names and uses collected in Denver and
those collected by other workers 1n Laos. This problem
needs further Investigation.
The uses for the plants can be grouped Into
four broad categories: a) Tonics for treatment of low
energy, tiredness and/or rejuvenation; b) Treatments
for upset stomach; c) Women's reproductive health
issues Including regulation of menstruation and
"cleansing", becoming pregnant, maintaining fetal and
maternal health and regaining strength and energy
postpartum; and d) treatment of pain and Injury (e.g.
animal bites, wounds, broken bones, rashes, joint pain,
Four methods of preparation and
administration are most common: a) 1n decoction; b)
cooked and consumed with chicken; c) chopped fine,
mixed, steamed, and eaten with an egg; and d) mashed,
applied externally and held 1n place with a bandage.
An Interesting correlation can be drawn from these
methods of preparation. In nearly all cases the tonics
are prepared in a high protein mixture, with chicken or
egg. Similarly those plants used for pregnancy (both
maternal and fetal health) are likewise prepared 1n
protein-rich chicken/egg mixtures. Medicines for upset
stomach, and those for non-pregnancy related
reproductive health are more commonly prepared in
decoction. It is tempting to draw a correlation
between the high protein mixtures and times of
the U.S., some of which plants may have been found
growing here, especially 1n southern California where
many Hmong have settled.
Due to the nature of the Hmong flight from
Laos relatively few people brought out plants. The
picture 1s one of various people bringing a few plants
each into the camps. These were redistributed within
the camp as people found what they were familiar with
and needed, possibly adding some new ones as well. It
is the unanimous opinion of all my informants that
there were many more plants they would/could use 1f
they could get them.
Excluding plants brought with them most
plants have been purchased, as opposed to being traded,
collected, or given. The reasons for this are not
entirely clear. There are hints that the knowledge for
the use of these plants, and by extension the plants
themselves, had been purchased. Therefore any passing
on of these plants and the attendant knowledge must be
accompanied by payment. It 1s not clear though exactly
what the payment 1s for, the knowledge, or the plant,
Other factors include what I referred to
earlier as non-human selection factors that affect
which plants become available. As noted, my sample is
too small to afford a definitive test, but large enough
to Indicate what directions such testing might take.
Such factors as ease of propagation, ease of growth (as
pot/house plants), transportability of stock
(toughness), and a nebulous category, the vagaries of
travel (e.g. customs), all have an influence on which
plants come into common use. Of the 32 different taxa
collected, 29 of them are readily propagated from
cuttings, divisions, tubers, etc. Similarly many of
these plants produce parts that can withstand the
rigors of travel: seeds, fleshy 1eaves/stems, tubers,
rhizomes, etc. Added to this is the fact that most of
them are herbaceous plants (non-woody), which are
generally more amenable to pot culture than trees and
I am arguing that such factors may not
influence plant collection and choices of plants
directly, but presumably they exercise an important
influence on selection and, maintenence of plants In
the Hmong pharmacopoeia.
A final point about the network of
acquisition is substitution. There is only one obvious
case in which a plant available in the U.S. has been
directly substituted for one available 1n S.E. Asia.
This was replacing Rhus chinensis (Chinese sumac), a
common and widespread tree in S.E. Asia with a member
of the same genus, Rhus typhina (Staghorn sumac), a
very common tree in this area. It is being used in a
A new method developed by Trotter and Logan (1986,
Trotter, et.al. 1983) 1s Informant consensus.
Statistical testing of a large data base of medicinal
plant use provides an outline of which plants are most
consistently used by various groups to treat a defined
set of conditions. This 1s combined with a method of
quick bioassay using brine shrimp which gives a quick
non-specific indication of potential bioactlvity of the
medicine. None of the four tests themselves prove the
usefulness of a medicine, rather they serve to
highlight specific plants within the myriad often
available. This smaller number can then be subjected
to more careful and controlled research.
By searching two aspects of the literature I
was able to test for possible empirical validation in
two ways. By concentrating the search 1n sources on
Asian medicinal plants I was able to obtain a
historic/geographic/cross-cultural perspective that 1n
several cases strongly suggests possible validity 1n
the uses of these medicines.
As noted 1n the Introduction to the Results
section, even this relatively narrow focus produced, 1n
some cases, dozens of diverse uses for some of the
plants. In most cases there were uses coincident to
those reported by Hmong Informants. I take these
coincident uses, even when embedded in mryiad other
uses, to provide evidence that there may be valid
reasons for the use of these plants to treat the
The other test was to check what 1s known
about these plants from the chemlcal/pharmacologlcal
perspective against their stated uses. If there was
any evidence that the plants have pharmacologically
active components that coincide with the Hmong uses,
this was noted. This test involved asking whether the
Hmong uses were 1n any way similar to applications
based on known chemlcal/pharmacologlcal constituents.
Rough though such tests may be, there are
some tantalizing hints that the uses of these plants by
the Hmong represent an empirically generated knowledge
of the biological bases of these plants as medicines.
Several plants warrant mention in this
regard. Correlation of data collected from informants
with the literature in these cases suggests that the
action of these plants 1s consistent with Western
biomedical expectations. Achillea millefolium (Suv tev
tsev, 53) is a good example. Its use by the Hmong as a
treatment for sore or swollen gums 1s consistent with
the uses discussed in the literature. Duke and Ayensu
(1985:143) in particular discuss its uses, among
others, for treatment of bleeding and sores and mention
its astringent, analgesic, and antiinflammatory
properties. As noted in table 29 there a number of
pharmacologically active compounds in A. millefolium
that have antiseptic, antiinflammatory and/or analgesic
properties that would be effective in an ameliorative
and curative fashion in the treatment of oral/dental
Acorus calamus (Bliag deg, 15a) was used in a
variety of ways by different informants, all of which
are consistent with what might be expected form cross-
cultural comparison and chemical make-up. Each of the
Hmong uses can be correlated to one or more examples in
the literature. It 1s most frequently used by the
Hmong as a treatment for indigestion and related
conditions. Support for the other uses by the Hmong
can be inferred from the literature. Note that in
table one actions of several of the chemical components
would act favorably in treatments applied by the Hmong.
Asarone (hypothermic), methyl eugenol (sedative) and
Azulene (antipyretic) would all help in relieving the
symptoms of high fever. The treatment of altitude
sickness would be facilitated by the anesthetic
properties of camphor and eugenol, and the analgesic
and sedative properties of eugenol and methyl eugenol.
It should be noted that in some varieties of A. calamus
several components are potentially toxic and/or
carcinogenic (Duke 1985:15).
Cymbopogon and Datura are both moderately
well supported by the literature in their uses by the
Hmong. The analgesic, antiseptic, bacteriostatic, and
anti allergenic properties of Cymbopogon1s chemical
constituents would all be potentially beneficial 1n
treating various animal bites and stings. The
interesting aspect of the Hmong use of Datura 1s its
external application (not an uncommon practice), which
largely avoids the highly toxic properties associated
with internal use.
One plant, Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides (Pua
toj tshuab, 22), warrants mention because its Hmong
uses and values are somewhat contradicted by the
literature. Its use 1n treatment for fetal illness
runs counter to its antiferti11ty/carcinogen1c
properties. Because the report from which this came
(Duke 1985:569) did not discuss the test animals,
dosages, etc. that led to this conclusion, it is
difficult to make a definitive statement on the risk of
using this plant as stated. It may well be that at the
dosage and 1n the combinations used by the Hmong this
one isolated chemical component is of no consequence.
Others (e.g. Datura ssp.) are unambiguously dangerous
and are clearly treated as such by everyone.
The fourth part of this study, that of the
integration of Hmong medicinal plant use with the local
health system, will require more detailed ethnographic
work before a thorough understanding is possible.
Nonetheless, tentative conclusions can be drawn from a
clear consensus among informants as to the relation
between medicinal plant use and other health care
The Hmong tend to be strongly pragmatic
concerning use of the various health care options
available. There are, predictably, strong age related
differences 1n the use of various health care options.
The older, more culturally conservative people tend to
rely first on traditional practices and cures while the
younger, more acculturated members turn predominantly
toward the local medical establishment. Similarly the
younger group is much more comfortable with and has a
better understanding of medical practices 1n the U.S.
that are at variance with those of their parents and
In short, there 1s a sequential or layered
use of the medical options available. The general
pattern 1s to attempt cure/treatment with medicinal
plants, with occasional use of minerals and animal
products. If this fails to affect a cure, then turning
to a physician or clinic would be in order, sometimes
in an acute or emergency situation. This 1n turn may
be followed by a visit to a shaman, 1f that 1s felt
There 1s also some indication of concurrent
or layered usage of the options available. A physician
may be consulted and his/her practices followed, while
simultaneously using medicinal plants and/or the
services of a shaman. The uses are not parallel so
much as overlapping. This 1s particularly apparent in
prenatal care where a woman might be "followed" by both
a Hmong healer and members of the medical profession,
e.g. public health nurse, health clinic staff, etc.
Finally there is an element of picking and
choosing among options available. There are some
culturally based conditions that simply cannot be
readily treated outside of normal cultural practices.
These could Include situations call for "counseling" in
the larger medical system (e.g. questions about
marriage, having children, marital problems), but 1n
which plants are utilized as part of the search for
solutions. Other situations are referred entirely to
the local health profession, e.g. acute conditions.
Hmong medicinal plant use 1s at present an
active, viable part of Hmong culture 1n the U.S., but
Its future 1s In doubt. While many people are actively
growing plants for home use, relatively few are
vigorously seeking out new plants or making concerted
efforts to maintain their plants from one year to the
next. Several people I encountered during my research
lost their plants and made no effort (or were unable)
to re-establish their collections. To my knowledge, no
young people have taken sufficient Interest in
medicinal plants to warrant learning their uses. Their
knowledge of the use of plants as medicines will likely
consist at best of an occasional name and half-
Another major factor working against
continued use of medicinal plants 1s a shadowy sense of
Illegality. This probably accounts for an initial
hesitancy on the part of some informants to talk to me
and share their knowledge. It may contribute to the
vigor with which some younger people discourage their
elders' practices with regard to medicinal plants. At
best the younger generation reveals little interest 1n
taking advantage of "in-house" medicinal knowledge.
Young people find the larger medical system preferrable
to that of their parents and grandparents.
The major focus of my own future research in
Hmong ethnobotany will be threefold. A thorough survey
of the plants and their uses will be fundamental to all
other work. This is, in part, "salvage ethnobotany",
the recovery of as many plants and as much Information
as possible on their usage.
This larger base will permit a more extensive
and deeper analysis of the concept of empirical
validity. Testing against the literature and in the
laboratory will be one aspect of this analysis.
Another aspect will be more detailed ethnographic work
to determine how people decide which plants are best
used in any given situation. What salient
characteristics do they note in using these plants? In
short what processes are Involved in the continuing use
of plants as medicine? The third aspect of an expanded
study will be a more detailed investigation of the
place of plants in the larger medical system. This
analysis is complicated by the overlapping and disjunct
nature of the medical systems Involved: that which the
Hmong brought with them and that in which they must now
These last two aspects provide the core to
understanding medicinal plant use. It is ultimately
the complex interplay between the biological and the
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Date ___________________________ Collection # ___________
Informant name __________________________________________
Plant name(s) ___________________________________________
Latin binomial __________________________________________
When would this plant be used (symptoms) ________________
Name of condition and translation _______________________
How prepared/admlnistered/dosage ________________________
What parts used _________________________________________
How does this piant/medlcine work? What does it do for
the sick person? ________________________________________
Is there another plant that could be used to treat this
How grown/propagated ____________________________________
Where did you get this plant? ___________________________
Hmong Plant Names and their Synonyms
B11 ag deg, Cag daj, Pawj 1a, Tw ntses
Cag daj, Bliag deg, Pawj 1a, Tw ntses
Cua tob ntsuab, Kua txob ntxuab
Huab atslb, Tsam plab, Txis haum tx1b, Tx1v fuab txhlb
Juab dev vwm, Zuab 1ab
Juab taw o, Taub Kib, Qua taw os, Koj tawm os dawb
Jub mos luij
Kab nrog, Kab raus
Kab raus, Kab nrog
Koj tawm os dawb, Juab taw o, Taub kib, Qua taw os
Kua txob ntxuab, Cua tob ntsuab
Kuab nplals dib
Kuab nplalb taub, Kuab nplals taub loj, Sham mob kab,
Plooj tuaj kuag
Kwab p1 a 1 dib, Quab npcias dib, Tshuab paj ntaub, Thuaj
Ncas liab, Nhau Hal, Nyuj txhawg liab (?)
Nhau llal, Ncas liab, Nyuj txhawg Hab (?)
Nyuj txhawg liab, Ncas liab, Nhau lial (?)
Pawj 1a, Tw ntses, BUag deg, Cag daj
Pawj qab, Poj qualb
Plooj tuaj kuag, Kuab nplaib taub (loj), Sham mob kab
Poj quaib, Pawj qab
Pua toj lia, Tshaus pab thuo 11a
Pua toj tshuab, Tshaus pab thuo tsua
Pum hub nyeg, Pwm tshls
Pwm tshls, Pub hub nyeg
Qua taw os, Taub klb, Koj tawm os dawb, Juab taw o
Quab npclas dlb, Tshuab paj ntaub, Thuaj paj ntaub,
Kwab p1 a 1 dib
Quag tshals (Blue Hmong), Tshias nqav (White Hmong)
Rag nyiy liab
Sab txhim khaus
Sab txhim mab
Sham mob kab, Plooj tuaj kuag, Kuab nplaib taub (loj)
Suv tav tsev
Taub kib, Koj tawm os dawb, Juab taw o, Qua taw os
T a u j dub
Thuaj paj ntaub, Kwab plai dib, Quab npclas dib, Tshuab
Tsam plab, Huab atsib, Txis haum tx1b, Txiv fuab txhib
Tshias nqav (White Hmong), Quag tshais (Blue Hmong)
Tshuab kua si
Tshuab paj ntaub, Thuaj paj ntaub, Kwab plai dib, Quab
Tshuaj rog, Tsuab rhog, Tsuab nrog
Tshaus pab thuo lia, Pua toj 11a
Tshaus pab thuo tsua, Pua toj tshuab
Tsuab nrog, Tsuab rhog, Tshuaj rog
Tsuab rhog, Tshuaj rog, Tsuab nrog
Tw ntses, Bliag deg, Cag daj, Pawj ia
Txis haum txib, Huab atslb, Tsam plab, Txiv fuab txhib
Tx1v fuab txhib, Tx1s haum txib, Huab atsib, Tsam plab
Txiv ntou tiab
Txiv pub luj
Zuab iab, Juab dev vwm
Zuab rau nees, Kab raus
Latin Names and their Hmonq Equivalents
Achillea millefolium L.: Suv tav tsev
Acorus calamus L.: BHag deg, Cag daj, Pawj ia, tw
Acorus gramineus Soland.: Pawj qab, Poj quaib
Allium tuberosum Rottler ex Sprengel: Dos ntug
Aloe barbadensis Mill.: Txiv puv luj
Curculigo orchioides Gaertn.: Ncaug dub
Cymbopoqon citratus (DC. ex Nees) Stapf.: Tauj dub
Datura mete! L.: no name collected
Dicliptera chinensls (L.) Nees: Cua tob ntsuab, Kua
Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides Lam.: Pua toj tshuab, Tshaus
pab thuo tsua
Iresine Herbstii Hook.: Kaj liab
Oenanthe javanica (Blume) DC.: Koj tawm os dawb, Juab
taw o, Taub kib (Blue Hmong), Qua taw os (White Hmong)
Rhus typhina L.: Huab atsib, Tsam plab, Txis haum txib
Ricin 1s communis L.: Tx1v ntou tiab
Saxifraga stolonifera Meerb.: Plauj tsua
Sedum makinoi Maxim.: Kwab plai dib, Quab npcias dib,
Tshuab paj ntaub, Thuaj paj ntaub
Sedum sp.: Pua toj lia, Tshaus pab thuo lia
Sedum sp.: Jub mos lu1j
Sedum sarmentosum Bunge: Kuab nplais dib
Sedum spectabile Boreau: Kuab nplaib taub, Kuab nplais
taub loj, Sham mob kab (White Hmong), Plooj tuaj kuag
Solanum nigrum L.: Juab dev vwm, Zuab iab