Noni (Morinda citrifolia)
by Brandon Ruiz
Growing throughout tropical regions around the world, there is a tree commonly found along the beach and a bit inland that catches people’s eyes and noses, interested in plants or not. From its red-tinted roots that seem to reach back out of the sand to its alien-like fruit hanging off the branches, Noni is a plant that makes itself known where it grows. The most common thing done after seeing these strange fruits is looking down to the sand, where the ripe fruits have fallen off. One picks up the fruits, only to find it now lacks as much substance and density as its rock-hard fruits on the tree, fingers slipping right through the fruit and in that moment, the most pungent, intoxicating smell wafts from the fruit into their nose, leaving them wide eyed (this wide eyed means many different things for many different people). This smell can be described as, “stinky socks”, “rotting blue cheese” or simply, “vomit”. There’s usually only two ways things go from here, the ambitious person staying to smell, maybe even taste the fruit or bring it with them, or the fruit being dropped right there with disgust, as the person leaves immediately to try and wash the scent out of their hands and head. Noni has made various imprints on people all over the tropics, and unlike tropical medicines like damiana, neem etc. that are only growable in the tropics but make it to the USA in extract form, powdered and dried, noni is very rarely able to be used fresh or to get access to on the mainland, with the exception of a few processed fermented juices from companies. So, this monograph is especially written for those herbalists in the tropics who have a pharmacy within itself waiting for them along the beachside.
-Names: Noni, Morinda, Indian Mulberry, Cheese Fruit, lada (Guam), weipwul (Pohnpei), Nonu (in Samoa and Tonga), Raratonga (in Tahiti), Mengkudu (in Malaysia).
-Description/Taxonomy: Latin name: Morinda Citrifolia (Rubiaceae). Morinda Citrifolia is an evergreen shrub or tree found growing up to 15 feet tall. It has opposite, glossy leaves that are prominently veined, and white, perfect flowers (has both male and female organs within the same flower). Its fruits are syncarps, meaning the singular fruit is made up of multiple other fruits (think blackberries and pineapples). Its bark is a yellow tint, but gradually turns to a light pink towards the roots. Unripe fruits turn from a dark green to white and almost translucent when ripe. Each fruit can contain anywhere from 20-100 seeds.
-Parts Used: All parts of this amazing plant have been used medicinally! The seeds, fruits (ripe and unripe), bark, roots, leaves, twigs and flowers all have traditional and modern use.
-History/Ethnobotany: Noni is believed to have originated in either Southeast Asia or Polynesia. It has been documented in Ayurvedic medicine and was a key food and medicine for Polynesians. Around 400 A.D., noni was taken as a canoe plant towards Hawai’I, along with other important foods like coconuts and pineapple. This journey was lead by a Polynesian chief named Hawaii Loa, and once the fruit was established in Hawaii and surrounding islands (even into Papa New Guinea and Australia), it blew up. The very similar climates allowed the fruit to thrive and began spreading throughout the islands. Eventually, through many historical instances in Hawai’i’s history, noni was obtained and transported to other tropical regions throughout the world, from all over Asia, to Central and South America and the Caribbean, including even east-more locations like Africa. Noni fruit was considered an important crop, as it provided medicine and food for indigenous peoples, the entire plant was used, and it grew well wherever they went.
The fruit has been used as a food source both unripe and ripe. The ripe fruits are mashed and cooked or eaten raw, and the unripe fruits sliced and cooked. Both ripe and unripe fruits are used as external poultices for skin problems like cold sores, scrapes and cuts and other minor wounds. It is also prominently used as a medicine for multiple purposes. These uses include but are not limited to: toothaches, hypertension, sore throat, stomach ulcers, intestinal worms, gum infections, a mild laxative, a general tonic for energy and wellness, and even to repel bad spirits (it was believed the foul smell kept them away).
The leaves traditionally are used as a poultice for headaches, fractures, abdominal swelling, as a diaphoretic and for stonefish stings. Internally, they are used for stomach ulcers, vitamin deficiency and to wrap food in for cooking. The seeds are mashed and applied to the scalp to kill off bugs and as a general skin repellant, a decoction of the bark is drunk to treat jaundice and hypertension. The wood of noni has been used to create canoe parts and tools, and the bark contains a yellow dye used for dying (the roots contain a reddish dye used the same way).
-Environmental Significance: Noni is a pioneer species in certain situations; after major storms, noni will be some of the first to pop up along the beach, and one of the first along lava flows. Its fruits are eaten by various birds and fruit bats, cattle and small rodents. Various varieties of bees love noni flowers, and some people have even hypothesized that some of the medicinal properties in noni come from some processes done by the bees!
-Cultivation and Harvest: Noni trees can be grown from seed or by cuttings, however cuttings tend to be easier, as they propagate easily and take a shorter amount of time than seed. The seeds are hydrophobic, meaning they have a small air pocket in their center and float in water. This enables the seeds to float across the ocean for up to year, and propagate in a totally different part of the world! But this also stunts the ability to propagate, so cutting or poking a hole in the seed can help speed up germination (seed scarification). Noni will not tolerate temps below 40 degrees F., but can stand up to 100 degrees F! It can tolerate drought for up to 6 months, flooding, and can grow anywhere from in rocks and sand to fertile mountain soils. It can take very little sun, and up to 80% sun! What I’m trying to say is, noni can grow virtually anywhere! It takes 1-2 years to grow fruits, and when it does, it can produce up to 20 lbs of fruit monthly!
In terms of harvesting noni, the new, undamaged leaves are best. Ripe, mushy fruits are the best for fermentation and general use, and they tend to fall to the ground when ripe. The unripe and hard fruits still on the tree can be used for other purposes. The seeds can be used from the ripe fruits, after being separated from the pulp.
-Actions: Alterative, anthelmintic, analgesic, antimicrobial, astringent, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, emmenagogue, tonic, vulnerary, nutritive, parasiticide. Of course, these “anti” actions are not anti like antibiotics would be. They are simply able to reduce or alter the state of the condition (inflammation, microbial infection etc.)
-Energetics: Noni has a warming and moving energy. Its pungent aroma moves energy in the sinus and lungs, and its slightly analgesic effect on the mouth is warming and stimulating.
-Organ Affinities: Noni fruit has an affinity to the lymph and immune system, and the throat and lungs. The leaf has an affinity to the skin and kidneys.
-Constituents: Soluble proteins, morindadiol, morindin, triterpenoids, ursolic acid, Citrifolinoside-B, hexanoic acid, scopoletin. This a short overview of many of the compounds found in noni, and they vary greatly on age of the tree, location and time of year. You can check out the last reference on my list for more in-depth information about compounds found in Morinda Citrifolia.
-Medicinal Use: First, refer to the History/Ethnobotany part I typed, as all of these should be regarded as medicinal use. The “authentification” of indigenous ways by modern science and technology should not be viewed as superior and what determines something’s traditional/historical use. Traditional healing ways should be seen as the tried-and-true method of healing, that they have learned about through direct experience and/or situations beyond our comprehension.
Fruit: Noni ferment is used to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, clear the sinuses and lungs, heal stomach ulcers, stimulate immune activity and is an everyday, building tonic. The raw fruit is an analgesic, is rich in enzymes and vitamins and minerals, and helps to build the blood. It regulates inflammation in the body, knocks out viruses and bad bacteria, and is a febrifuge. It can be applied as a poultice to sores, cuts and scrapes and warts. The unripe fruit is used for this drawing effect on warts and growths, and is said to be more effective than the ripe fruit. It is also applied to sores and scabs around or in the mouth to speed up the healing process.
Seeds/Flower/Bark/Roots: The seeds of noni can be pressed to obtain an oil that is used to kill off lice and repel insects. The flowers can be made into an infusion that is used to wash the eyes to treat sties. The flowers are also edible raw. The bark of noni provides a yellow dye, while the roots give off a red hue. The bark can be made into tea for jaundice and is astringent. The juiced roots can be used topically to treat badly infected cuts.
Leaves: I like to think of noni leaf as a tropical version of both comfrey and plantain (although plantain (Plantago Spp.) does grow in some tropical places). Externally, noni leaves work to pull out, making it great for infected cuts, splinters, plantars warts and other external issues. It works to stimulate the healing process in wounds and kill off bad bacteria within the wounds. It works on a deeper level to alleviate pain and swelling, bruising, arthritis and rheumatism. Full-body noni leaf poultices are an experience!!! Applied to the head, it works great to alleviate fevers (especially in combination with tobacco). Internally, noni leaf works its vulnerary magic on digestive discomfort caused by stomach ulcers and other related issues. It works to stimulate the immune system, systematically fight off bad bacteria and ease systematic inflammation. It works to balance blood sugar levels, act as a nutritive, and works great to treat urinary tract infections (especially with 2 other tropical herbs in Puerto Rico, Baquiña (Piper Peltatum) and Juana La Blanca (Borreria Laevis)). Aside from teas and tinctures, eating the young leaves as a vegetable or as a wrap also provides these benefits.
-Combinations With Other Plants: For sore throat and lymph issues, noni is great with elderberry and ginger. It’s usually added to pineapple or papaya juice, since they cover up the flavor/odor of noni, but can be added with any other juice or into a smoothie. Noni with ginger and Anamu ((Petiveria Alliacea) another Caribbean medicinal) is a sure-fire way to knock out a virus, and even to help with chikungunya or dengue. For digestive upset and as a general stomach tonic, noni juice with aloe and nopal cactus (blend aloe and noni ferment together, and blend nopal with water, strain out then combine). For general immune health, any immunostimulants/immunomodulators work great with noni, in terms of island medicines, turmeric and what we call poleo in Puerto Rico (Lippia spp.).
-Permaculture Use: Since noni tends to appear along the beach, it can be grown underneath coconuts and other palms. With it’s sprawling root system, it may help to plant along slopes to help prevent erosion. In commercial intercropping, papaya and coconuts are planted around noni. It can thrive in forest understory settings and loves upperstory leaf mulch and organic matter. A nice Hawaiian plant guild could include noni and papayas at the top, followed by kava bushes surrounding, and gotu kola as a groundcover below.
-Conservation and Considerations: As noni has become practically invasive in many tropical regions throughout the world, there is no need to worry about endangerment, small populations etc. In fact, as an invasive in certain areas it may be best to pick this medicine in order to help natives regain footing in their spaces. The world is abundant in noni at this time! However, as we do see its reoccurrence in many places, we must pay attention to each situation, as pioneer species in places like alongside lava flows (as mentioned earlier in the monograph) may be something we don’t want to disturb as it helps to realign the environment in various instances. We also must remember that although invasives may have taken over in places where natives once were, the environment may have adjusted to these situations and adapted to the “invasives”, now relying on their presence in an ecosystem.
-Dosage, Preparations and Consumption: Dosage depends on the form of preparation of this medicine. I most commonly use leaves and fruit for my medicinal preparations. The flowers can be used for an infusion, the roots and bark boiled into a decoction. Leaves can be made into tea, juiced, or mashed and used externally as a poultice. The fruits can be eaten raw, blended into smoothies or made into the traditional fermentation.
This anaerobic fermentation is done by picking ripe fruits from the tree, or even those that have ripened and fallen to the ground. After rinsing these fruits off, fill a glass container with fruits. You may choose to mash them up a bit but putting them in whole is just fine. Close the jar and leave it inside, burping it once or twice a day for the first few days then once a week. The fruits will juice themselves, dripping out a dark, sour-smelling liquid. The fermentation process can take from 7 days to 2 months, depending on your circumstances. I have found that I’ve had noni ferment ready in a week when preparing it in the tropics, as the heat and humidity speeds up the process, while making it in the northern hemisphere takes around 3 weeks. Some say to put it in the sun to speed things up, others say that damages nutrients and enzymes (I guess it really depends the intensity of the sun and if the noni is in an amber glass or clear glass). When your noni ferment is done, strain the fruit pulp out and your liquid is your medicine! It should smell smooth and slightly sour, a bit lighter in intensity than the fruit’s original raw smell. It should look like soy sauce and can practically taste like it too. Take your ferment in a shot glass every morning, or when you feel you’re coming down with something. It can be stored in the fridge or outside of it as well (I’ve had experiences leaving it out of the fridge in the tropics and taking it daily for weeks and all was well). It should be noted that some say this is not the best way to make medicine with noni, and that the fermentation process kills off various enzymes and phytonutrients. They argue a raw juice should be made, but this is a bit hard considering the make-up of the fruit (mushy, and un-juiceable as mashing it just results in mush). One way to make this raw juice is to blend it with a bit of water then strain it, pressing as much liquid out at the end. I like the use the leftover pulp for glycerites or dehydrating it as a fruit leather of sorts.
To prepare a leaf tincture, I like a 1:4 75% ratio of dried leaves, or 1:2 95% for fresh leaves. I prefer glycerites of the leaf, as it brings out the strongly medicinal flavor of the leaf while still tasting sweet.
-Accessibility: Noni leaves can be harvested in any tropical setting. Some vendors will sell dried leaves, and bottled noni ferment is available from many big companies. However, this product will almost always be pasteurized and therefore not raw and full of all of its goodness.
-Cautions and Contraindications: Noni fruit may lower some individuals’ blood pressure and may also affect blood sugar levels. Should be used cautiously with pregnant women and children under 5 and should be avoided by people with kidney failure or high potassium levels. Do not use noni excessively if you have an autoimmune disorder.
-Personal Experiences and Recommendations: I was introduced to noni as a child by my grandmother. I was just diagnosed with tonsillitis, and the infection was bad. The doctors were going to remove my tonsils, but my grandma mentioned noni juice to my parents, and she brought some fermented juice mixed with fruit juices to our home. Me and my father took shots morning and night, and just after a few days, my infection had subsided! The doctor and my parents couldn’t believe it, but my grandmother knew the noni would help. From that day on, me and my father would always take shots morning and night, I was always so excited to get up or go to bed to have my noni! Though covered by other fruit flavors, I developed a craving for the fermented juice. Now, when I make the ferment myself and drink it straight, it still sticks with me and I find it delicious! Good fermented noni should taste like a mix of soy sauce, light maple and vinegar, although it can always vary. My abuela uses fermented noni juice to stabilize her blood sugar and reduce how much insulin she needs to take. She also takes it as a general health tonic. I have some friends who make a vegan blue cheese with the fruit, and it really tastes/smells like it! I believe they just use the fermented juice and blend it with…cashews maybe? Not sure exactly what happened there, but there’s a concept to play with! I sometimes will eat noni raw…but many people don’t like doing that. Although I did have a good friend who tried it when she was sick, and claims it knocked the nastiness out of her in a day! I think it’s very potent when eaten raw, however you must learn to adapt to the mouth-numbing, acrid/spicy flavor the mushy fruit gives off.
I also love to make elderberry syrup and add a shot of noni ferment to my bottle. Helps to preserve and packs a punch! Spit-poultices of noni leaf are great for jungle ailments like bug bites, cuts and more. You can use the fruit that way too. Noni leaf glycerites are delicious and powerful, with a strong medicinal smell/taste to it. Here’s a yummy juice recipe:
-juice of 1 pineapple
-juice of 1 guanabana
-squeeze of lime
-chunk of ginger
-shot of noni juice
Replace what you can’t get access to with other sweet, tangy fruit juices. This stuff is super refreshing and leaves you feeling fresh and clean!
Brandon Ruiz is a Holistic Herbalist, Permaculture Designer and Plant-Based Nutritionist who lives in Charlotte, NC. He specializes in studying and working with plant medicines from his native Puerto Rico and surrounding islands, and the Appalachian region; this Appalachia + Island fusion is showcased through his company, Atabey Choreto Medicinals. He also is the Director and Founder of the Charlotte Herbal Accessibility Project, a project in Charlotte that aims to provide equal and affordable access to herbal medicine in its entirety, from seed to tincture.