Ethnopharmacological survey of medicinal plants in Jeju Island, Korea
© Song et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 22 February 2013
Accepted: 2 July 2013
Published: 9 July 2013
This study aims to analyze and record orally transmitted knowledge of medicinal plants from the indigenous people living in Hallasan National Park of Korea.
Data was collected through the participatory rural appraisal method involving interviews, informal meetings, open and group discussions, and overt observations with semi-structured questionnaires.
In this study, a total of 68 families, 141 genera, and 171 species of plants that showed 777 ways of usage were recorded. Looking into the distribution of the families, 14 species of Asteraceae occupied 11.1% of the total followed by 13 species of Rosaceae, 10 species of Rutaceae, and nine species of Apiaceae which occupied 5.0%, 7.1% and 3.0% of the whole, respectively. 32 kinds of plant-parts were used for 47 various medicinal purposes. Values for the informant consensus factor regarding the ailment categories were for birth related disorders (0.92), followed by respiratory system disorders (0.90), skin disease and disorders (0.89), genitourinary system disorders (0.87), physical pain (0.87), and other conditions. According to fidelity levels, 36 plant species resulted in fidelity levels of 100%.
Consequently, results of this study will legally utilize to provide preparatory measures against the Nagoya Protocol (2010) about benefit-sharing for traditional knowledge of genetic resources.
Hallasan National Park, which possesses a wonderful ecological geography and a unique traditional culture, was designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 2002, a World Natural Heritage in 2007, and a Global Geopark in 2010, making the sub-tropical island the only place on Earth to receive all three United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designations in the field of natural science.
Mt. Halla (1,950 m) is located at the center of the Hallasan National Park as a volcanic island distributed randomly over 360 parasitic volcanos (“oreums” in Korean). Hallasan National Park is separated by the Jeju Channel, 59 km in width, across from Haenamgot, which is the southernmost tip of the Korean Peninsula and is made up of eight inhabited isles and 54 uninhabited islets. Particularly, Hallasan National Park lies in the middle of the triangle which consists of the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese islands and the Chinese continent. The nearest point to Japan from Jeju Island is the city of Sasebo (250 km); and for China, it is the mouth of the Yangtze River in the Shanghai area. Therefore, this ideal location has been advantageous for exchanging cultures and goods within these regions. Hallasan National Park has been referred to as a small continent in far east Asia due to its unique culture that the people of Jeju have created.
Traditionally, Jeju is famous for its abundance of three items, which include Seokda (rocks), Pungda (wind), and Yeoda (women). Seokda originated from the past volcanic activity of Mt. Halla. The inhabitants of Jeju Island needed to cultivate the land through a long process of clearing away the numerous rocks covering the land and then form inlets for irrigation, and finally construct walls for protection against the wind. The abundance of Seokda speaks of the harsh surroundings on Jeju Island. The island is located in the path of typhoons; therefore, the islanders have had to fight against the sea. The effects of Pungda and Seokda impact the lifestyle of the inhabitants on Jeju Island. Two examples are the thatched roofs which are tied up with straw rope, and the fields surrounded by stone walls. The third element which exists on Jeju Island isYeoda, which originated from the fact that most men on the island were lost at sea, and therefore caused the women to outnumber the men. Also, women had to come out into the fields with men due to the Jeju Island's harsh living environment. The abundance of Yeoda is a stated comment on population statistics, but moreover it is a metaphor for women living on Jeju Island who work diligently. The famous women-divers on the island (“haenyo” in Korean), who fight against the wild waves to catch fish are very symbolic to Jeju Island.
The agriculture of Jeju Island has traditionally been famous for its tangerine orchards and horse breeding due to the fact that the land cannot support rice farming due to the nature of the soil. The weather of Jeju Island depicts a vertical distribution from subtropics to a subarctic zone by its geographical position, its elevation, and topography. Owing to these environmental factors, the vegetation of Hallasan National Park is variously distributed from low-lying warm temperature forests to alpine or arctic forests of its highlands. It has a subtropical evergreen broad-leaved forest zone 600 m above sea level. Also, it has a temperate deciduous broad-leaved forest zone between 600~1,400 m above sea level. And it comprises the vegetation girdle of the subarctic zone or subalpine belt which is between 1,400~1,950 m above sea level. The endemic plants and the diversity of its species are abundant compared to other areas of the Korean Peninsula.
The floral investigation of Hallasan National Park began by Nakai , who reported 1,433 species, with both Lee  and Park et al.  examining the same area. The latest flora count reported 1,800 species by Kim  to 1,990 species by Kim et al.  in 2006.
The investigation of its medicinal plants began first with 405 species by Do et al. . In 1968, 494 species were found by Do , and 425 species were reported by Yuk , and in 2004, 801 species were reported by Kim . However, an ethnopharmacological study using orally transmitted traditional knowledge had yet to be considered.
Up to the present, although ethnopharmacological studies on islands of the world has widely been accomplished, such as the Reunion Island  of France, three islands on Vanuatu , and the Hainan Island of China , this research was the first of its kind in Korea and on Jeju Island.
This study aims to record traditional knowledge about medicinal plants orally transmitted from generation to generation in Jeju Island of Korea, where traditional culture and a biogeographic ecosystem, fortunately, have been relatively well conserved.
Study area and investigative method
Field investigations were conducted throughout 27 sites starting from April, 2011 to November, 2011 (Figure 1). We interviewed 117 key informants who had lived over 40 years in the study area. Proper data was collected using the participatory rural appraisal (PRA) method, as the informants also became investigators themselves, participating in interviews, informal meetings, open and group discussions, and overt observations with semi-structured questionnaires [14–16]. The content of the semi-structured questionnaires was composed of diverse ethnopharmacological information, including local names, plant-parts used, ailments, methods of preparation, manufacturing and administration, dosage, and usable duration regarding each medicine [14–17].
All plant specimens were collected during their flowering or fruiting seasons, and were organized utilizing the normal specimen manufacturing method [14, 17]. The voucher specimens were deposited for preservation in the herbarium of Jeonju University. The precise identification of plants mentioned by the informants was performed in accordance with Lee  and Lee . Scientific names of plants were confirmed by the National Knowledge and Information System for Biological Species  of Korea.
The informant consensus factor (ICF) was used to identify the ethnopharmacological importance of the collected plant species and to analyze the agreement degree of the informants’ knowledge about each category of ailments [12, 21, 22]. The ICF was calculated using the following formula: ICF=(n ur – n t ) / (n ur – 1), where n ur is the number of times an ailment was mentioned in each category and n t is the number of plant species used.
The fidelity level (FL) was employed to determine the most important plant species used for treating certain diseases by the local herbal practitioners and elderly people living in the study area [14–16, 23]. The FL was calculated using the following formula: FL(%)=N p × 100 / N, where N p is the number of informants that mentioned the specific plant species used to treat certain ailments, and N is the total number of the informants who utilized the plants as medicine for treating any given ailment.
Results and discussion
Demographic characteristics of participants in the study
Never attended school
Attended school for less than 6 years
Attended school for 6 years
Finished middle school
Finished high school
Medicinal plants and associated knowledge
In this study, a total of 68 families, 141 genera, and 171 species of plants that showed 777 ways of usage were recorded from Hallasan National Park (Additional file 1: Table S1). The recorded plant species totaled 8.6% of the 1,990 species  and 21.3% of the 801 medicinal species  in the study area. The varying percentage exists for two reasons. One, the local community had not gathered wild plants for usage any longer. Two, most of the elderly people who directly gathered the medicinal plants, had forgotten their preparatory methods and usages. However, the 171 recorded plant species on Jeju Island exceeded the number per square kilometer found on the islands of other countries researched: 75 species found on Reunion Island in France, which is 1.3 times larger in area than Jeju Island , 133 species found on the three islands in Vanuatu, which is 6.7 times larger than Jeju Island , and 385 species collected on Hainan Island in China, which is 20 times larger than Jeju Island .
The fruit of Vitex rotundifolia L.f. was applied to the pillow for the cure of headaches. The fruit of Torreya nucifera (L.) Siebold & Zucc. was used to cure vermicide, as in China and Japan [29–33]. Also, the whole plant of Phryma leptostachya var. oblongifolia (Koidz.) Honda was utilized as a bath supplement for skin ailments. These medicinal plant species should be developed as health products for their vital contribution in health care and health management.
Particularly, because Epimedium koreanum Nakai, which is used as a tonic in far eastern Asia , but is not grown in Hallasan National Park, Caulophyllum robustum Maxim., Thalictrum kemense var. hypoleucum (Siebold & Zucc.) Kitag., and Cimicifuga biternata Miq. were taken as substitutes. However, the medicinal efficacies of these substitutes are very different from Epimedium koreanum Nakai . We believe that the inhabitants of the island used these substitutes and obtained similar psychological benefits.
Finally, we have affirmed that the overall usage pattern of medicinal plants of the inhabitants on Jeju Island is nearly similar to both China and Japan due to the similarity of the flora of medicinal plants.
Informant consensus factor (ICF)
Category of ailments and their informant consensus factor (ICF) according to Heinrich et al. (1998)
Symptom and ailment categories
Birth related disorders
Respiratory system disorders
Skin disease and disorders
Genitourinary system disorders
Cuts and wounds
Nervous system disorders
Circulatory system disorders
Fidelity level (FL)
The fidelity level is useful for identifying the inhabitants’ most preferred species in use for treating certain ailments . FL values in this study varied from 1.0% to 100%. Generally, a FL of 100% for a specific plant indicates that all of the use-reports mentioned the same method for using the plant for treatment . The study determined 36 species of plants with a FL of 100%, even without considering plants that were mentioned only once for better accuracy (Additional file 1: Table S1). This information means that the informants had a tendency to rely on one specific plant species for treating one certain ailment than for several ailments.
With special attention given to important species (N, Np) of plants with an FL above 90% regarding the viewpoint of the number of times mentioned and the consensus level for the specific ailment, Citrus tenuissima Tanaka. (81, 61), Pyrus pyrifolia Nakai (41, 34), Cimicifuga heracleifolia Kom.(14, 12) and Citrus aurantium L. (11, 11) were used to treat the common cold, respectively. Also, Cinnamomum camphora (L.) J. Presl (53, 48) was used for various cancers, Undaria pinnatifida (Harvey) Suringar (28, 24) for Puerperalism, Torreya nucifera (L.) Siebold & Zucc. (18, 18) for parasites, Solanum tuberosum L. (19, 17) for burns, Imperata cylindrica var. koenigii (Benth.) Druce (18, 16) for snakebites, Papaver somniferum L. (15, 12) for furuncle, and Potentilla chinensis Ser. var. chinensis (11, 11) for tingling (Additional file 1: Table S1).
Review of local plant names
Phonemes of classic Korean in the 15th century that uniquely remain in the names of 25 species
Standard Korean name
Local name on Jeju Island
Achyranthes japonica (Miq.) Nakai
Arisaema amurense for. serratum (Nakai) Kitag.
Breea segeta (Willd.) Kitam. f. segeta
Cirsium japonicum var. maackii (Maxim.) Matsum.
Citrus junos Siebold ex Tanaka
Citrus tenuissima Tanaka.
Euonymus alatus (Thunb.) Siebold
Euscaphis japonica (Thunb.) Kanitz
Fagopyrum esculentum Moench
Gardenia jasminoides Ellis
Lagenaria leucantha Rusby
Luffa cylindrica Roem.
Melia azedarach L.
Polygonum aviculare L.
Poncirus trifoliata Raf.
Prunus tomentosa Thunb.
Raphanus sativus L.
Ricinus communis L.
Schisandra chinensis (Turcz.) Baill.
Solanum nigrum L. var. nigrum
Sophora flavescens Solander ex Aiton
Torreya nucifera (L.) Siebold & Zucc.
Viola mandshurica W. Becker
Zanthoxylum piperitum (L.) DC.
Zanthoxylum planispinum Siebold & Zucc.
Hallasan National Park has been designated as a cultural, topological, and natural heritage of the world by UNESCO, as it lies in the middle of the triangle which makes up the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese islands and the Chinese continent, and for being home to various plants which contain interesting properties according to an ethnopharmacological viewpoint.
Particularly, the characteristics of traditional ailments and the use of medicinal plants of Hallasan National Park have been brought to light. First, the traditional ailments of the local communities were evaluated by both climatic and geoecological environments. The respiratory ailments of Hallasan National Park were much higher than any other region because of windy and humid conditions. Second, ailments due to traditional occupations also existed, like cases of arthritis for the women divers in Jeju Island. Third, people used medicinal plants of similar shape for the same purpose, even though they had a different efficacy (for example, Epimedium koreanum Nakai). These properties need further study using an investigative method in social medicine for a more exact analysis.
Also, medicinal plants, including Lagenaria leucantha Rusby, Citrus aurantium L., Trichosanthes kirilowii var. japonica Kitam., Neolitsea sericea (Blume) Koidz., Duchesnea indica (Andrews) Focke, and Phryma leptostachya var. oblongifolia (Koidz.) Honda were mentioned significantly and have high FL values in categories of a high ICF index. These species will be able to develop as pharmafoods or pharmaceuticals.
However, it is expected that the rapid decrease of the senior population which directly gathers wild medicinal plants will certainly lead to a greater loss of oral traditional knowledge similar to other regions in Korea [15, 16].
We keenly realize the necessity for a sustainable conservation of orally transmitted traditional knowledge of medicinal plants.
The authors are very grateful to all informants of the study area for sharing their oral traditional knowledge. This research was performed as a part of the Infrastructure Development Project for traditional knowledge-based Remedy (K11210) funded by the Acupuncture & Moxibustion and Meridian Research Groups of the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine.
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