Beach Gardenia “Wuti ‘Lo Mar”
General Description / Cultural Significance
The Marshall Islands, known as Majōl by the Marshallese, are made up of low-lying coral atolls and islands, none of which reside higher than twenty feet above sea level. Nearly three quarters of the population live and work on the islands of Majuro and Kwajalein where the U.S. leases land for missile testing. The rest of the Marshallese primarily farm, fish, and raise livestock on the outer islands. Every morning, a sweet smell wafts through the tropical air, beckoning those who follow its fragrant trail to the Beach Gardenia, Guettarda speciosa. The Marshallese call this native flower Wuti ‘Lo Mar, meaning “flower in the midst of foliage,” as it grows in beach thickets, low land forests, and by the seaside. Guettarda speciosa enjoys its ocean view as it is uniquely resistant to the windy, salt-filled air which blows in from the island’s reefs. Wuti ‘Lo Mar blooms early in the morning, producing small, white flowers which are commonly collected and woven into head pieces called ut pālpel worn by Marshallese women and neck garlands called ut mow mar worn by all others. The scent and familiar beauty of Wuti ‘Lo Mar follows them wherever they go. The bark of the plant might then be used as a dye and the plant’s trunk burnt for firewood. Beach Gardenia leaves are also used as toilet paper, plates, and to cover the um oven while cooking.
The Marshallese have long understood the medicinal potential of Beach Gardenia and have brought forth much of the traditional knowledge of the plant’s medicinal use. Wuti ‘Lo Mar flowers are mixed into coconut oil to form a scented balm and a mixture of the flower’s fruit and coconut is a traditional antidote for fish poisoning. The leaves are added to baths for newborns and towels are soaked in the hot, flower infusion, then pressed to the forehead as a headache soother. In traditional herbalism of the Marshall Islands, Wuti ‘Lo Mar flowers are collected, ground until fine, and blended with a mother’s milk for babies showing signs of weakness or lethargy. Juice extracted from the flowers has long been used both to cleanse women’s genital areas and as a drink for postpartum mothers experiencing internal bleeding. Beach Gardenia extract is traditionally considered a dependable treatment for coughs, colds, sore throats, and fevers. In recent scientific studies, Guettarda speciosa has proven to be antidiarrhoeal and suggested as a powerful anti-epileptic, anti-neurodegenerative, and anti-inflammatory.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
According to the World Bank, ninety six percent of the country’s capital of Majuro is at risk of frequent flooding due to climate change. This statistic alone should speak to the severity and immediacy of the Marshall Islands’ climate crisis. The country is quickly developing a costly adaptation plan for essential infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, and government and community centers, which will become inundated and destroyed by the projected oncoming rising sea level. However, the situation of the Marshall Islands should serve as motivation for decision-makers around the world to analyze their country’s carbon footprint and act accordingly in the hopes of reversing the temperature changes and increased flooding that tropical, island countries like the Marshall Islands experience daily.
In 2008, a comprehensive study documented the health of tree life across the Marshall Islands and found that, after Cocos nucifera, Guettarda speciosa was most likely to be found dead or damaged by insects, harmful vegetation, weather, and disease. Changes in rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and increased salt levels from ocean flooding are significantly damaging the island’s land and, thus, the well-being of the plants which grow on it. This shift in Beach Gardenia health comes as the long process of climate change, human agroforestry, urbanization, and military disturbance is showing its impact on the people, flora, and fauna of this country. This last threat belies a deep scar on the Marshall Islands’ population, who experienced, firsthand, the island’s exploitation by the U.S. as a nuclear testing site.
Between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear weapons were tested on the Marshall Islands, resulting in radiation levels almost double the legal agreement. Four of the Marshall Islands’ coral atolls were tested and confirmed to be contaminated with radioactivity, two of which were inhabited. The concentration of radioisotopes in the soils of these islands surpassed government limits, and radioactivity levels were even discovered in the fruit growing on Bikini Island and Rongelap Island, including coconut and pandanus plants. These are not only critical commercial crops for the Marshallese, but fruits which the people of the country consume every day, plants which have defined the landscape of the Marshall Islands for centuries.
Though the inhabitants of the two most radioactive islands have since been relocated, all four contaminated coral atolls were once well-frequented by locals for cultivating fruit, fishing, and gathering resources which the people of the Marshall Islands discovered long ago, formed their lives around, and are now barred from. The country’s president has said, “The climate crisis will sweep away my country if the world doesn’t keep its promises.” There are international efforts to help the Marshall Islands mitigate climate change and save its cherished Wuti ‘Lo Mar. However, this nation of low-lying atolls is at increasing risk to survive.
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