TOGETHER WITH several well-placed administrative officials of the University of the Philippines, I have been sworn to secrecy about who shared this piece of information about the intriguing plant makahiya, her position in the university being as sensitive as, well, the makahiya.
It seems the boiled roots of the makahiya have been discovered to be quite potent in the enhancement of male virility. Since my first job after university was to conduct research on medicinal plants, I was most interested in this new piece of information. My work on medicinal plants goes back to the 1970s, so I had to think hard about the information I gathered at that time and I just could not remember aphrodisiac uses.
I did find that makahiya was being used in some communities to induce sleep, but this property was never proven clinically, with people probably thinking it has tranquilizing properties because of the way the plant would go to sleep. Some medical research has looked into its other possible uses, including as an anthelmintic or a medicine against intestinal parasites. In Chinese books of medicinal plants, it is identified as han xiu cao, with very general uses mainly as a tonic.
I did remember being amused by the botanical description?something about young stems being erect and older ones creeping and trailing?so maybe people did notice and thought that using the younger roots might ensure vigor and rigor.
?But there?s one quite serious side effect,? our eminent informant declared, as we (two male and two female professors) cocked our ears: ?Pag hinawakan, tumitiklop (It folds up when held).? It was a joke, of course, and our good professor duly gave credit to ABS/CBN?s Anthony Taberna, who has a radio program in the morning which entertains the nation with political satire and Filipino humor.
The makahiya joke got me thinking about the plant. Who among us have not been fascinated, in childhood and beyond, by this plant? I have rediscovered its wonders many times over, lately with my children as we take walks and stumble on the plant, sometimes in the most unexpected places like cracks in the sidewalk.
The first time is always captivating, the child refusing to leave the plant, looking for ways not just to get it to sleep, but also to wake them up. I remember, too, and repeat the rituals of warning the child, ?Careful, careful! The plant?s going to eat your fingers,? and of course the children take it all with good humor, screaming in fake trepidation.
Do be careful though when handling the plant because it?s quite thorny. It?s an unassuming plant, but has its own charm with its purple globular flowers.
Let?s do a bit of botany here. The plant?s leaves are notable for two qualities. First, it?s seismonastic, which means it responds to touch, warming, shaking and even blowing. The stimulus causes the plant to lose turgor, and thus fold up. You?ll remember the stimulus actually spreads to other plants, somewhat like seismic waves.
Many people are unaware that makahiya is also nyctinastic, which means it closes during darkness and reopens in the light. So after your kids have discovered the different stimuli to induce seismonastic movements, you could do a ?magic? trick, getting the plant to go to sleep with touch, then covering it with a cup for a minute or two. When you take away the cup and expose the plant to light, the leaves will reopen.
Botanists are divided as to why the plant has these properties. Some speculate that maybe it is a form of protection from predators?by folding up it is less likely to get eaten. I found another study reporting that it?s a way for the plant to conserve nutrients.
Makahiya in the Filipino
Whatever its actual purpose, the plant is quite hardy, spreading very quickly. It is actually native to South and Central America but has found its way throughout the tropics, where it has very similar names to indicate sleepiness and bashfulness. In Malaysia one of its names is putri malu, which means shy princess, while in Indonesia its name is pokok semalu or shy plant. Other English names include touch-me-not (but not Noli me tangere) and the inviting tickle-me plant.
One of my university colleagues asked what makahiya?s scientific name was and from my medicinal plants days, I answered almost immediately, ?Mimosa pudica.? ?Mimosa? refers to a number of tropical shrubs, and is even used now as a name for people. ?Pudica? has a longer story behind it. It is Latin for bashful or shy, or in Filipino, mahiyain, but the word is related to pudendus, which means both shame as well as the external genitalia (male or female). The French phrase ?attentat a sa pudeus? means an offence against modesty, which could range from sexual harassment to actual rape.
In art studies, the term ?venus pudica? refers to sculptures of nude women with one hand used to cover the private parts as an act of modesty. Note that there is no equivalent for male nudes. Think of Michelangelo?s ?David?: the hand over the genitals is not meant to be an act of modesty but to call the viewer?s attention, like an arrow pointing to say, ?Look here?.
It?s unlikely anyone will think of adopting the makahiya as a national flower, but we might want to think about how the plant does reflect some qualities we might want to emulate: simple, modest and unassuming, yet able to thrive and spread. Maybe there is the makahiya in the Filipino.
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Additional notes on the UP School of Health Sciences: Thanks to professor Rolando Talampas of UP Manila, who e-mailed me about an error in my column ?Medicine in UPLB?? I mentioned that the UP School of Health Sciences, which uses a ladderized medical training program, now has three campuses: Palo in Leyte, Baler in Aurora and General Santos in South Cotabato. I erred with the last campus: it should have read Koronadal.
There have also been inquiries about how the ladderized system works. In this system, students are nominated by a community or local government with a return service agreement, which means they have to go back to serve their community after completing each step in the ?ladder?. After the first two years, they get a midwifery degree, serve the community, and then return to do another two years, which gives them a bachelor?s degree in community health. After another stint of community service, they can go back and finish a degree in medicine.
The School of Health Sciences has the three campuses I mentioned, but is coordinated out of UP Manila.