Ferns are one of nature’s treasures with their feathery leaves filling the understory of forests across North, Central, and South America.
While ferns are a well-known plant, some ferns stand out amongst their relatives. This isn’t due to their appearance or stature; rather, it’s because of their incredible health benefits as medicinal herbs.
There are several medicinal ferns throughout the world, but today we’re going to dive into the tropical rainforests and jungles of Central America and South America to discover a fern unlike any other: The calaguala, or kalawalla fern.
This unique plant has a rich tradition of use for native peoples, and these uses are being investigated in modern research. We’ll uncover just what this research is discovering and explore the promising possibilities of this herb as one of nature’s best skin healing remedies.
But, before we get into the kalawalla herb benefits, let’s delve into what the kalawalla fern is (and its potential as your next house plant).
What Is Kalawalla Herb?
Kalawalla, locally known as calaguala or samambaia, is a tropical fern in the Polypodiaceae family, the largest of the fern families. In the nursery industry, it’s known as Blue Star Fern.
Interestingly, calaguala has two interchangeable scientific names, Polypodium leucotomos, and Phlebodium aureum.
The former is used in scientific and biomedical research, while the latter is its formal botanical name used in the garden and nursery industry. Why that is, I’m not sure. But, just know that whether you come across Polypodium leucotomos or Phlebodium aureum, it’s the same plant.
Kalawalla’s medicinal value isn’t the only thing that set’s it apart from other ferns. For one, it grows high up in the rainforest canopy as an epiphytic: a plant that grows on trees or other large plants.
It sometimes grows in the understory, but it’s most often found in the crevice of a large tree branch. But what makes it truly unique is its wavy, blue-green fronds (leaves) that have a silver sea-colored hue.
Plus, the leaves of the Polypodium leucotomos fern are deeply lobed rather than bipinnately compound, as most other ferns.
These remarkable characteristics are what make it a beloved house plant for many, and its relatively low maintenance, long lasting, and incredibly hardy.
Many of Kalawalla’s traditional uses are what it is still used for today by local people.
As this fern plant native range covers a widespread area, from Honduras down to Ecuador and Peru, and even over to the Caribbean islands, including the hills of Jamaica, the traditional use varies slightly among native people.
That said, some of its healing powers are universal across its native territory, such as its use as a skin healing remedy. Traditionally, the leaves and rhizomes of the plants are harvested for medicine.
In the Honduran tradition, the ancient Mayans would drink kalawalla tea decoction as a blood purifier. This plant was part of their daily diet and highly revered for its medicinal value.
In Ecuador, they boil the root and drink it as tea to support the kidneys.¹ They also infuse it in vinegar to use as medicine and in culinary preparations.
In South America, the leaves are crushed and made into a poultice for eczema, psoriasis, and other itchy, inflamed skin conditions.
The use of kalawalla as a skin remedy and amazing immune tonic is where this magnificent fern shines.
Modern Benefits and Uses
- Immune modulation
- Immune stimulant
Parts Used: Leaves and rhizomes
Herbal Preparation: Infusion (tea), decoction, tincture, vinegar, infused oil, salve, compress, poultice
Kalawalla, or Polypodium leucotomos, is a well-researched medicinal plant with some surprising benefits.
As an herbalist, I’ve studied many medicinal plants (though there are still many more to learn about), but I’ve never encountered a plant with the specific medicinal benefits as this one.
Particularly, I’m amazed by what the research shows about kalawalla benefits as an antioxidant, and its incredible ability to heal the skin, prevent skin cancer, and enhance the immune system.
Kalawallas Skin Healing Benefits
Studies show that kalawalla has profound skin-healing effects, especially for vitiligo, melasma, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis.²
Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder that causes patches of skin to lose their color or pigmentation. This is caused by the immune system attacking and destroying melanocytes, or pigment cells, resulting in a creamy milk-white patch on the skin.³
Research shows that kalawalla can be used as an adjunct therapy for vitiligo and may prevent further loss of pigment in the skin through its immune-regulating effects. It’s also been shown to provide repigmentation to the skin, especially around the head and neck.
Another condition that causes dark spots on the skin is melasma, and this is due to exposure to UV rays, genetic factors, and hormonal influences. It’s shown that kalawalla can help treat and prevent melasma orally and topically.
One of the common folk uses of kalawalla is for atopic dermatitis, or eczema, which is a condition that causes dry, itching, and inflamed skin patches. Studies reveal the credibility of this traditional use.
It is used in a similar way to support and heal psoriasis, which is caused by an over-growth of skin cells, resulting in skin symptoms of flaking, a scaley buildup on the skin, inflammation, itchiness, and irritation.
Kalawalla can help heal and prevent these conditions through its skin healing, immune-modulating, and anti-inflammatory properties.
It’s interesting to note that many of these conditions (though not all) are rooted in autoimmune disorders. With that, P. leucotomos’ healing benefits are directly related to its high antioxidant content, ability to regulate the immune system and special affinity for the skin.
One of the most exciting uses of kalawalla is its ability to protect the skin from UV radiation and help heal damaged skin caused by sunburn.
Research scientists have conducted studies on kalawalla’s uv protective qualities as a way to determine if kalawalla could be used as an alternative to sunscreen.
These studies reveal that taken orally, kalawalla can reduce UV-induced cell damage, reduce oxidative stress and DNA damage, block UV radiation-induced immune suppression, and inhibit inflammatory cytokines.⁴
In this way, it can be used to help heal sunburns and prevent skin cancer, and generate new healthy cells where the skin cells have been previously damaged by UV radiation.
Its anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant properties also support its ability to prevent skin cancer and uv-induced tumors.
Immune Modulating Benefits
Kalawalla is beneficial for strengthening the immune system and helping it come into balance through its immune-regulating effects, especially for autoimmune disorders affecting the skin.
The normal function of the immune system is to defend the body from foreign pathogens.
With auto immune disorders, the immune system becomes “overactive” and can’t determine friend from foe, resulting in the immune system attacking bodily cells and tissues.
Kalawalla, if taken regularly over long periods of time, can help regulate overactive immune cells, bring the immune system into harmony, and support disorders such as lupus, rheumathoid arthritis, and inflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
It’s also shown to have immune-stimulating properties, making it a beneficial ally for viral and bacterial infections.
In one study on high-performance athletes, kalawalla was shown to significantly increase the athlete’s resistance to bacterial and viral infection and prevent relapses of bacterial infections.
P. leucotomos also facilitated a faster recovery in athletes with an infectious disease compared to those in the control group.⁵
Kalawalla Chemical Profile
Extracts of kalawalla leaf and kalawalla root reveal a complex chemical profile with the following major phenolic components: chlorogenic acid, coumaric acid, vanillic acid, caffeic acid, and ferulic acid.⁴
The plant constituents contribute to kalawalla’s healing compounds, including its anti-inflammatory, immune regulating, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties.
Safety and Contraindications
While generally considered a safe and gentle herb, some side effects of gastrointestinal upset, such as nausea, have been reported.
Starting out, try the single herb by itself in the form of tea, tincture, or capsule, in a small amount to see how your body reacts. For example, start with a teaspoon kalawalla herb powder in some hot water and increase your dosage from there.
Whenever you want to try any herbal products, it’s best to consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner, especially if you’re on medication, those who are diabetics, with immune disorders, and who are pregnant or nursing.
Kalawalla: Nature’s Sunscreen and More
Who would have thought that a blue-green fern with a silver hue, living up in the forest canopy, could offer humans invaluable healing medicine?
The native had an idea, which is why it has a rich history of use and was revered by the ancient Mayans.
Now, modern researchers highlight its promising potency as a skin remedy and UV-protectant, making it a one-of-a-kind natural sunscreen. Plus, with its immune regulating and antimicrobial effects, it’s a wonderful ally to have on hand for overall health.
Whether you try kalawalla powder in a capsule as a natural herbal supplement, seep the wild crafted herb in hot water for a kalawalla herb tea, or grow it as a houseplant, you’ll be sure to fall in love with this incredible and unique fern.
These statements have not been approved by the federal drug administration. They are for informational purposes only and haven’t been approved to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
¹Clay, Kristine. “Andean Plants and Their Herbal Uses – Herbal Academy.” Herbal Academy, 24 March 2022, https://theherbalacademy.com/andean-plants/. Accessed 15 August 2023.
²“Dermatologic Applications of Polypodium leucotomos: A Literature Review.” NCBI, 1 February 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8211346/. Accessed 15 August 2023.
³ “Vitiligo Symptoms, Treatment & Causes | NIAMS.” National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, 1 October 2022, https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/vitiligo. Accessed 15 August 2023.
⁴“Polypodium leucotomos – An Overview of Basic Investigative Findings.” NCBI, 27 December 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5189711/. Accessed 15 August 2023.
⁵Martín, Cabanes. “Polypodium leucotomos Extract use to prevent and reduce the risk of infectious diseases in high performance athletes.” NCBI, 16 October 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3476750/. Accessed 15 August 2023.
As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.