Hawaii and its Medicinal Plants

How did Hawaiians take care of their health before Westerners first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands with the medical treatments we are all now so accustomed to?

Quite well, actually.

It’s interesting to note that traditional Hawaiian health care includes much more than just medicine. In Hawaiian thought, illness stems from an imbalance in the physical, mental or emotional, and spiritual areas. Kahuna, or traditional healers, might make use of lomilomi (massage), pule (prayer), and ho‘oponopono (conflict resolution), as well as la‘au lapa‘au, or herbal or plant-based healing. Everything works together.

Here’s a look at some of the plants Hawaiians have traditionally, and often still, use for healing. You can see many of these plants at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

‘Awa (Piper methysticum) is also commonly called kava. This canoe plant is a large, rounded shrub with segmented branches that grows from 4 to 12 feet tall. In different preparations, it can treat insomnia, thrush and fungal disease, kidney problems, trouble urinating, chills, headaches, menstrual problems, and respiratory congestion. It’s most commonly known as a relaxant, and is used in ceremonies.

 (Cordyline fruticosa) is also known as ti. It is also a canoe plant and in different preparations treats various ailments. Sometimes its flowers or leaf buds are mixed with specific other plants, and occasionally kī leaves are placed on the body or stripped and worn as a lei. Kī is used to treat quite a wide range of medical issues, including headaches, asthma, phlegm, and any others.

Ko‘oko‘olau (Bidens, 19 species) is an annual or perennial herb or shrub that is commonly made into a tea and used as a general tonic. The entire plant, prepared variously, can be used for cleansing and purification, appetite restoration, throat and stomach problems, asthma, and more.

Kukui (Aleurites moluccana) is also known as the candlenut tree. This canoe plant is a tree that grows to 25 meters tall and has a silvery-gray powder on its leaves. Various parts of the plant, prepared in specific ways, are used to treat infections and infected sores, among other problems. To build strength after an illness, for instance, you grind the nutmeat with cooked kalo and the flesh of kikawalioa, and eat that with fish, poi ‘uala, and a ko‘oko‘olau infusion.

Māmaki (Pipturus, 4 species) is an endemic shrub or small tree with hard wood. Its leaves make a tea that serves as a tonic. Part of the māmaki fruit is used to treat infection.

noni plantNoni (Morinda citrifolia). Also called Indian mulberry, this canoe plant grows as a small to medium-sized tree or shrub. Noni is a significant medicinal plant in Hawai‘i with a strong, disagreeable smell. Some eat the fruit, or mash it and drink the juice. You can prepare it in various ways and use it to treat boils, bruises, sores, wounds, concussions, broken bones, muscle and joint pain, and skin eruptions. People also use the leaves, applied topically or sometimes burned or mashed; the fruit; the bark, and the root sap. The University of Hawaii Cancer Center has discovered and conducted clinical studies on noni’s anti-cancer properties.

Olena (Curcuma longa), or turmeric, is another canoe plant. Depending on how you prepare it and what you mix it with, this herb can be used to heal nasal ailments or to treat the blood, among other uses. A preparation of its sap can be a mild astringent or cure earache.

Pōpolo (Solanum americanum), or glossy nightshade. It is an annual herb, with a blackish-purple fruit, that spreads wide and grows up to 1.2 m tall. Many parts of the plant are used – from the leaves’ sap and the berries’ juice to the leaf buds steeped with salt or in conjunction with other plants.

The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Department of Botany produced this 52-minute video, An Introduction to Ethnobotany. It’s well worth a watch. The title is La‘au Lapa‘au: Traditional Hawaiian Herbal Healthcare.

To read more about Hawaiian medicinal plants, check out this older but still great list of references compiled by the Hawaii Medical Library.

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Appreciating Hawaii’s Marine Life

There is an amazing coral reef ecosystem that surrounds the Hawaiian islands. It supports 25 percent of all the known marine species, which includes fish, plants, and invertebrates.

Did you know that coral reefs are not plants but are made up of thousands of miniature animals called polyps? A polyp is an invertebrate that’s similar to jellyfish, with a body like a sac and a mouth that has stinging tentacles that come out at night when they feed. Coral polyps, which grow less than one inch per year, use calcium carbonate from ocean water to construct their protective limestone skeletons. There are about 50 species of coral in Hawai‘i, about 20 percent of them endemic to the Islands.

Here is some of the other marine life you may see within Hawaiian waters. You can occasionally see some of them from Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, which extends to the ocean at Onomea Bay.

sea turtle

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

  • Honu (Chelonia mydas). The green sea turtle, whose numbers got very low, is protected by state and federal law as well as the Endangered Species Act, and all that protection is working. It’s not uncommon these days to see a honu when you’re snorkeling or swimming, or find one resting on a Hawai‘i beach, such as Punalu‘u black sand beach in Ka‘u. Honu are the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles. A typical adult is three to four feet long, weighs 300 to 350 pounds, and probably lives to at least age 60 or 70. They primarily eat algae and seagrasses, although they sometimes also forage on sponges and other invertebrates. Never touch or approach a honu. If you see a sea turtle with an injury, such as an open wound or one that is entangled in rope or net, or witness illegal behavior around a honu, report it right away to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hotline at 888 256-9840 or to the Department of Land and Natural Resources at 808-643-DLNR (3567).
  • Nai‘a, or Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris), leap up to three meters high out of the ocean and spin. They live in Hawaiian waters year-round, resting in calm, shallow bays and lagoons during the day and foraging for fish, shrimp, and squid at night. There is an estimated 1-2,000 nai‘a off Hawaii Island. They are dark on their backs, with a light gray band on their sides, and a white underbelly. Nai‘a are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it’s recommended you stay 150 feet (50 yards) away from them.
humpback whale

By Whit Welles Wwelles14 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2821387 

  • Koholā, or humpback whales (Negaptera novaeangliae), spend summers off of Alaska. Every winter, around 10,000 of them swim almost non-stop for six or eight weeks until they reach warmer waters off Hawai‘i, where they breed and nurse their calves. Mother whales with nursing calves are generally the first to arrive, followed by young and newly-weaned whales. Adult males arrive next, and then pregnant females, who continue feeding in Alaska up until the last minute. You sometimes see humpbacks in nearshore Hawai‘i waters, including from the shore at the bottom of Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. They spout, breach, and give tail slaps during whale season, which is between November through May. Humpbacks are an endangered species protected by federal and state regulations.
  • Monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi) are the most endangered seals in the U.S. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and state wildlife laws. There are only about 1,400 still living, most of them in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In the main Hawaiian Islands, there are only about 300. Their Hawaiian name ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua translates to “dog that runs in rough water.” You occasionally see one resting on a Hawai‘i Island beach or coastal rock. Never approach a monk seal, and keep pets leashed and away.
Hawaii fish

Photo by Angelo Abear on Unsplash 

  • Fish. About 20 percent of the fish in Hawai‘i are endemic—unique to Hawai‘i and not found anywhere else. An exception is the state fish, called humuhumunukunukuapua‘a (or Picasso triggerfish; also Rhinecanthus rectangulus). It’s a tropical reef trigger fish you may see when snorkeling off the Kona coast. The Hawaiian name means “Fish with a snout like a pig.”
  • Invertebrates are animals without a backbone such as lobster, crab, octopus, sea urchins, shrimps, snails, and sponges. Coral is also an invertebrate. Hawai‘i’s reefs have fewer invertebrate species than some locations, but about 20 percent of its invertebrates exists only in Hawai‘i.

What can you do to help preserve Hawai‘i’s marine life? Leave sand and rocks where they lie. Don’t litter, and pick up any trash you see at the beach so it doesn’t go into the ocean and threaten marine life. Wear a flotation device when you snorkel, so you don’t step on or touch coral for balance. Do not feed wildlife, and keep your distance from green sea turtles and monk seals.

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Coconut and Other Palm Trees

Of all the types of palm trees, many people here in Hawai‘i are most familiar with the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera. It’s the tree that says, “tropics.”

But there’s so much more to the coconut palm. Its fruit, the niu or coconut, is so useful that early Polynesians brought it along to sustain themselves when they sailed across the Pacific to Hawai‘i.

Polynesians knew that when they settled on new islands, they could plant coconuts and make use of the entire tree that grew—not only the coconut meat and water, but also the leaves, the wood, the fiber, and every other part. According to the book Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii, “Besides drink, food and shade, niu offers the possibilities of housing, thatching, hats, baskets, furniture, mats, cordage, clothing, charcoal, brooms, fans, ornaments, musical instruments, shampoo, containers, implements and oil for fuel, light, ointments, soap and more.”

palms

Pritchardia beccariana – Beccari’s Loulu

The only palm tree that’s native to Hawai‘i is the loulu (Pritchardia). There are perhaps 19 loulu species in Hawai‘i and a few related species in Tahiti and Fiji. Hawai‘i used to have large loulu forests, but while some loulu still survive in the wild, many disappeared because of rats, pigs, goats, and even people.

Within the genus Pritchardia, there are 25 species of palms native to the tropical Pacific Islands. In Hawai‘i, as many as 19 species of Pritchardia are endemic, and some of them are categorized as endangered, rare, or vulnerable. There is at least one distinct Pritchardia species on each Hawaiian island. Some of the islands even have distinct species or forms that exist only within an individual valley or mountain.

palm tree

Syagrus romanzoffiana – Queen Palm

There are also many other types of palm tree, of course—we know of around 2600 palm species and perhaps 189 genera. Palms can be climbers, shrubs, stemless plants, or trees. They are flowering plants in the monocot order Arecales, which contains only one family,  Arecaceae (also known as Palmae).

Other types of palms offer other various products. The African tree Ealeis guineensis provides palm oil; the Asian toddy palm Caryota urens supplies palm sugar (elephants love to eat that palm); and the betel nut palm (Areca catechu) offers up betel nuts, which are stimulants.

Betel nut palm tree

Areca catechu – Yellow Betel Nut Palm


Some other interesting palm facts:

  • Eighteenth-century Franciscan missionaries are said to have brought the first palm trees—date palms (Phoenix canariensis)—to Southern California.
  • Palm Beach County in Florida got its name after a Spanish brig, carrying 20,000 coconuts just harvested in Trinidad, wrecked in 1878 and those coconuts washed up all along the coast. People planted the coconuts around their homes and down their streets, the area became known for its palms, and the county became named for them.
  • Los Angeles got its palm-lined streets when the city put unemployed Depression-era men to work planting 25,000 palm trees along 150 miles of city streets. That was just before the 1932 World Olympics.

You’ll find a “Palm Jungle” full of naturalized Alexander (Archontophoenix alexandrae) palms at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. The Garden also has some loulu palms, including Pritchardia beccariana, a species endemic to wet forests on the eastern side of Hawai‘i.

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All About Orchids

orchid

Did you know there are more than 30,000 orchid species, and at least 200,000 hybrids? Orchids, which are of the family Orchidaceae, thrive in environments from the arctic tundra to the equatorial tropics. But the largest numbers are found in the tropics.

You’ll find our orchid garden in the heart of Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, where there are always lots of species and hybrids blooming. And throughout our Onomea Valley garden, you’ll come across orchids growing epiphytically on trees, just as they do in their natural environment.

hawaii flowers

An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant but is not parasitic. Orchids and other epiphytes, such as many ferns, bromeliads, and air plants, grow on tree trunks in tropical rainforests. They get their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, or debris that accumulates around them. It’s a thrill to come around a corner and see sprays of colorful, exotic orchid flowers blooming from the trunk of a tree.

Once you’ve encountered a few of those, you might understand how people become orchid fanatics. Susan Orlean’s best-selling book The Orchid Thief (also made into the movie Adaptation) is a fascinating—and true—story about a man and his orchid obsession.

There are primarily two categories of orchids.

  • Monopodial orchids have a single, upright stem with leaves that grow opposite each other. The flower’s stem rises from the base of the uppermost leaves. Orchids of this type include the phalaenopsis and vanda.
Hawaii garden

  • More common are sympodial orchids, which grow horizontally and send out new shoots from the rhizome. This type includes cattleya, cymbidium, oncidium, and dendrobium.
yellow flowers

Orchid Care

Considering taking on an orchid as a houseplant? Here are some tips:

Some orchids, such as phalaenopsis and paphiopedilum, are native to the humid tropics and like their daytime temperatures from 73 to 85 degrees, with 80-90 percent humidity. They prefer an east or southeast window.

orchid care

Cymbidiums and dendrobiums are warm-climate orchids that like average temperatures of 55 to 70 degrees, steady moisture, and good air circulation. Put this type of orchid in a south-facing window, though during the hottest days you may need to give it a little shade.

Cattleyas and some oncidiums like their days dry and relatively cool. They can survive a long, dry season with temperatures of 80-90 degrees followed by a rainy season. They need a lot of light and do very well in a sunny, south-facing window.

Masdevallia and epidendrum are high-altitude orchids that grow in cloud forests where there’s an average temperature of 60 to 70 degrees and high humidity. They prefer filtered light.

Watering an Orchid

Never overwater orchids because too much water will cause an orchid’s roots to rot. One method is to try to water an orchid the day before its soil is dry. If you need to check, insert a sharpened pencil into the soil—if the plant has enough water, it will darken from the moisture. A more straightforward method is to stick your finger into the plant and see if it feels wet. When you aren’t sure whether it needs water yet, wait one more day.

how to care for orchids

It’s best to water in the morning, so there’s time for the water to evaporate on the orchid’s foliage and crown. Set the plant in a sink, use lukewarm water, and water for about 15 seconds. Make sure the whole plant gets water. Then let it drain for at least 15 minutes, so the plant does not stand in water.

It’s essential to feed your orchids regularly. Experienced gardeners use a 20-20-20 fertilizer. If you use a different type of fertilizer, make sure it contains little or no urea. Growers suggest fertilizing your orchids “weakly, weekly,” meaning it’s best to apply a diluted fertilizer (1/4 the recommended amount) every time you water (weekly), rather than the full amount just once a month. Never apply fertilizer to a dry plant; water it first.

For more information about how to care for orchids, here are some good reference books.

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‘Earth Overshoot Day’ is Earlier Than Ever in 2019

earth overshoot day

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

We are using our ecological resources 1.75 times faster than the planet can regenerate them, according to the Global Footprint Network.

That international nonprofit organization has been calculating “Earth Overshoot Day,” the date at which we start consuming natural resources faster than they can be replenished by the end of the year, since 1986.

Today is 2019′s Earth Overshoot Day, and July 29th is the earliest in the year the date has ever landed.

The online publication Quartz describes Earth Overshoot Day as “the day when humanity overshoots the planet’s ability to recover from what resources we consume within each year—like regrow the trees we cut down, absorb the carbon dioxide we emit, and replenish the seas with the fish we harvest, to name a few. At this rate, it would take 1.75 Earths to sustainably meet the current demands of humanity, according to the available data.”

Read more at Quartz.

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How Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden Observes World Nature Conservation Day

Today is World Nature Conservation Day. While it’s great to have a day calling attention to Earth’s natural resources, we should all be doing whatever we can year-round, too, to increase awareness of nature conservation and ensure the long-term protection of our natural resources.

botanical garden

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (HTBG) is one place where it’s World Nature Conservation Day every day. While it’s beautiful to wander through the 40-acre Onomea Valley tropical garden, there’s so much more to it than that.

conservation

The botanical garden is like a living museum for people to go through and experience nature and conservation firsthand. Not only does HTBG protect specific plant families and ecosystems, and act as steward of Onomea and the waterways, it places a focus on educating people and reigniting the connection between people and plants.

Other ways the scientific and educational non-profit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden protects our natural resources and environments:

  • Acts as a living seed bank, growing and protecting more than 2,000 species that represent more than 125 families and 750 genera.
  • Grows and protects native, local, and other tropical plants and trees.
  • Preserves and provides habitats for insects, birds, and other wildlife.
  • Maintains and ensures clean waterways.
  • Protects ocean ecosystems.

How we all can help with conservation and the environment

What can we, as individuals, do to support nature conservation and the environment? Reduce how much we buy, waste, and send to the landfill. Reuse non-plastic shopping bags. Grow our own plants. Ride a bike when we can instead of driving. Spend time in our local parks and botanical gardens. Practice eco-tourism. Support Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

climate change

If you are here on Hawai‘i Island, you might consider helping with coastline cleanup through a group such as Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.

Here are five other environmental volunteer opportunities in the U.S. and around the world where you can help. In honor of World Nature Conservation Day, consider choosing one and making a difference regarding clean water, trees, ocean and marine life, animals and wildlife, and climate change.

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Tropical Hawaiian Flowers: the Heliconia Plant

When you visit Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, you’ll notice the showy, brilliantly colored flowers called heliconia. Heliconia are exotic and dramatic, and they scream TROPICS! The Garden has an excellent collection of species and hybrid heliconia and you’ll see them on every trail.

lobster claw

Some, like the hanging lobster claw, are pendant, and others have standing inflorescence bracts. Their inflorescence bracts, either smooth or fuzzy, have up to small 50 flowers each. The flowers are often bright red, yellow, or both, although some are orange, green, purple, and pink.

heliconia flower

There are about 200 species of heliconia (all of the genus Heliconia; family Heliconiaceae), some from the Pacific Islands as far west as Indonesia, and others that are native to tropical America.

It was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, known as the “father of modern taxonomy,” who named the genus Heliconia in 1771. The name is after Helicon, a mountain in Greece that is home to Apollo and the Muses.

In the past, heliconia were classified as part of the banana family (Musaceae), but while their leaves and shape do somewhat resemble that family (and also the bird of paradise, Strelitziaceae), they have very different flowers.

heliconia

Depending on the species, heliconia can grow up to 30 feet tall and their leaves range from six inches to 10 feet long. There are three basic kinds of leaf arrangement:

  • Upright with long petioles (like how a banana plant grows)
  • Generally horizontal with short petioles (as a ginger plant grows)
  • Oblique blades with short to medium-length petioles (similar to those in the genus Canna).

Various birds and animals make use of the heliconia. Some attach their nests to a strip of leaf torn away from the blade, so the leaf makes an overhang. Spiders and frogs hide within the heliconia’s furled leaves, and tiny aquatic organisms, including mosquito larvae, live in the water that collects in the bracts.

Want to grow heliconia yourself? The plant prefers full sun to partial shade and does best in humidity and warm temperatures. It does not do well in cold temperatures.

When you cut the flowers, wash them with a little dish detergent and rinse them with fresh water before putting them in a flower arrangement. If you soak them in fresh water for about 30 minutes every three days, they will keep longer.

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Polynesian Canoe Plants, Including Breadfruit, Taro, and Coconut: the Ultimate in Sustainability Planning

Do you know about “canoe plants?” These are the plants—such as kalo (taro), ‘ulu (breadfruit), and niu (coconut), among others—that  Polynesians brought in their carefully-stocked voyaging canoes perhaps 1,600 years ago when they first settled in Hawai‘i.

Canoe plants are one more piece of the evidence showing us that the people who colonized Hawai‘i were intelligent voyagers who came in planned expeditions, not islanders who drifted here unintentionally. Not only did they successfully navigate the oceans like highways, but before they left home to explore and settle new lands, they pr­­epared themselves well. After all, they had to sustain themselves both during their long journeys and also upon arrival in a new island group, where they didn’t know what resources they would find.

They maximized their limited space by packing seeds, roots, shoots, and cuttings of their most critical plants, the ones they relied on the most for food, medicine, and for making containers, fabric, cordage, and more. We can identify about 24 plants that arrived in Hawai‘i as canoe plants. You can see samples of some of them at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

The Most Significant Polynesian Canoe Plants: ‘Ulu

Breadfruit or Ulu‘Ulu (Artocarpus altilisArtocarpus incisus or Artocarpus communis) belongs to the Moracceae (fig or mulberry) family. Known in English as breadfruit, the ‘ulu tree produces a “fruit” that is actually a vegetable with a high carbohydrate content. Breadfruit can be cooked and then prepared much like a potato, or cooked and mashed into ‘ulu poi. In earlier times, people used the tree’s sap to caulk canoes or catch birds. The sap can also be used on cuts or scratches, or as a moisturizer for wind-burned skin. People use the tree’s lightweight wood for canoes, homes, drums, surfboards, and more. You often see quilts and other fabric with the design of the broad breadfruit leaf. Some Hawaiians plant an ‘ulu tree when a child is born, to provide food for the lifetime of their child.

Kalo 

canoe plantsAnother of the most significant canoe plants was kalo (Colocasia esculenta), known as taro in English. According to the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, the kalo plant is descended from the sky father Wākea and earth mother Papa. When they buried the stillborn baby boy Hāloa-naka, kalo grew from his body to provide for the Hawaiian people. That kalo was named Hāloa, “everlasting breath,” and is considered the sacred elder brother of humans.

In 1914, scientists identified an amazing 300 kalo varieties, some growing in wet-land terraces and others cultivated as “dry-land” crops. Kalo has always been an essential crop for Hawaiians, both in the past and also in the present.

Poi, which is made by steaming the plant’s corm, pounding it, and mixing it with water, is Hawai‘i’s primary starch food. The easy-to-eat food, rich in vitamins, is often Hawai‘i babies’ first food because they can digest it easily.

You can cook and eat the plant’s leaves, called lū‘au, which, for instance, are what wraps around the laulau. In fact, you can eat every part of the kalo plant—although it must be well-cooked to break down its calcium oxalate crystals. Never eat any part of the kalo plant raw.

Kalo is also used in ritual and as medicine, for instance to settle the stomach or as a poultice on infected sores.

Niu (Coconut Palm)

canoe plantsNiu (Cocos nucifer), the coconut palm, is a slender tree that can grow up to 100 feet tall. Its trunk is so strong that people have lashed themselves to coconut palms during hurricanes to (successfully) keep from being swept to sea.

Besides being brought to Hawai‘i by Polynesian voyagers, coconuts have also reached Hawai‘i over the centuries by bobbing along on ocean currents, still viable after their long journeys. Not only does the coconut fruit provide food and drink, but the tree’s leaves make thatching, baskets, mats, cordage, and more—not to mention shade. Some say the niu has more practical uses than any other tree in the world.

As with breadfruit, Hawaiians sometimes plant a niu tree after a baby’s birth. One tree, which may live for 70 to 100 years, can provide up to 50 coconuts each year, so can provide food throughout a child’s entire lifetime.

Kī (Ti)

canoe plants (Cordyline terminalis), a member of the lily family, is another versatile canoe plant. It’s also known as ti.

Kī leaves placed across a feverish person’s bare skin from the neck down can cool a fever. Cool green kī leaves held or wrapped around the forehead and temples can treat headaches. Wrap the leaves around hot stones, and you have a treatment that may soothe a sore back. Leaves and shoots can be boiled or steamed to treat other specific ailments.

Cooks wrap kī leaves around food before steaming, and use them to store food, as well. They sometimes cover a table for a lū‘au (party), and become plates. They are sometimes crafted into rain capes and woven into sandals. The twisted kī-leaf lei is one of the first lei some people learn to make. The leaves are used in flower arrangements, too.

You will often see kī planted around a home for good fortune. Kahuna (priests) use the leaves to conduct ceremonies, and individuals use them to fend off bad fortune and bring good.

The plant is a symbol of high rank and divine power; some say kī inspired the feather kāhili (royal standard) that symbolizes ali‘i (royalty).

Mai‘a (Banana)

canoe plantsMai‘a (Musa paradisiaca), or banana, also came to Hawai‘i as a canoe plant. Now there are more than 50 varieties, and they grow wild. In addition to being a significant Polynesian starch food, Hawaiians have traditionally used huge mai‘a leaves as umbrellas, rain hats, and roofing. We use them as table coverings and to hold heat in an imu (underground food oven). You can eat the leaf buds and use the leaf sheaths for a water runway or to protect the plants or leis you are carrying to a friend. The banana leaf’s sheath can become thatching, or help with stringing a lei, and can be braided into cloth or thread. People used banana trunks to roll canoes from shore into the ocean; some probably still do.

Bananas are an important component of many medicinal treatments, as well. Different preparations were treatments for asthma, constipation, stomach problems, and as a poultice for wounds. The plant’s juice can be a dye for kapa cloth.

Canoe Plants that are Trees

The video Introduction to the Ethnobotany of the Canoe Plants: Five trees introduced from Polynesia, created by the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s botany department, discusses five significant trees that arrived in Hawai‘i as canoe plants.

Kukui (Aleurites moluccana), candlenut in English, grows wild now in large groves in Hawai‘i forests. It’s an incredibly versatile tree whose stem makes a brown dye, and root makes a black one used to dye kapa (bark cloth). Bird hunters used the tree’s sap on the end of a stick, which they held up in the forest while hidden under a rain cap of ti leaves, to catch a bird for its feathers. Juice in the kernel’s husk can be a throat gargle, and kukui fruit roasted with salt makes a delicious condiment called inamona. Both its fruit and flowers can become lei.

There’s a reason kukui’s English name is candlenut. Kukui nut oil was traditionally a source of light. Strings of husked kukui fruit strung onto coconut midribs, when lit, become a type of lantern. The oil can also sit in a stone depression, along with a piece of kapa that is lit, and make a stone lamp. In 1959, Hawai‘i’s State Legislature declared kukui the State Tree.

canoe plantsKou (Acacia koa) is traditionally a favorite wood for carving food bowls because it does not impart any flavor to the food stored within it.

Wood from the milo (Thespesia populnea) tree is also used to carve food bowls. Milo wood imparts a bitter taste to food unless cured, though, so traditionally people put sweet potato or kalo poi in the bowl and left it for a week or so, and then cleaned it out and checked whether or not the bitter flavor was gone. If not, they repeated the process. Milo leaves can also make a light tan dye.

Kamani (Calophyllum inophyllum) is another wood used to carve food bowls, though not as often because the sun can more easily crack kamani wood. Kamani flowers provide a perfume, the tree’s fruit, which resembles a wrinkled golf ball, provides an oil, and all parts of the tree are medicines.

Hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) is another versatile canoe plant. It’s used medicinally for many ailments and can become cordage, canoe booms, outriggers, fire starters, and more.

It’s easy to understand why the Polynesians selected and traveled with the canoe plants they did. They made wise decisions and brought many of the plants they relied on the most, and which were the most versatile, so that they could build successful lives in their new island homes.

Here’s a list of all the commonly recognized canoe plants:

  • `Ape (elephant’s ear)
  • `Awa (kava)
  • `Awapuhi Kuahiwi (shampoo ginger)
  • Hau
  • Ipu (gourd)
  • Kalo (taro)
  • Kamani (Alexandrian laurel)
  • Ki (ti)
  • Ko (sugar cane)
  • Kou
  • Kukui (candlenut)
  • Mai`a (banana)
  • Milo (portia tree)
  • Niu (coconut)
  • Noni (Indian mulberry)
  • `Ohe (bamboo)
  • `Ohi`a `Ai (mountain apple)
  • `Olena (turmeric)
  • Olona
  • Pia (Polynesian arrowroot)
  • `Uala (sweet potato)
  • Uhi (yam)
  • `Ulu (breadfruit)
  • Wauke (paper mulberry)
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History of Kahalii and Onomea Bay: The Legend of Twin Rocks

Onomea BayHawaii Tropical Botanical Garden sits in a valley that extends from the four-mile “scenic drive” off Highway 19 all the way down to beautiful Onomea Bay.

In the 1800s, the area was a rough-water seaport. In the second half of the 19th century, when the sugar industry sprung up, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers lived there and worked in the cane fields and helped build the Onomea Sugar Mill.

In older times, though, the Onomea Bay area was a fishing village called Kahali‘i. The story goes that one day a chief from Kahali‘i spotted many canoes sailing toward shore. Fearing an attack, the chiefs and village elders met and decided they should build a reef that would prevent the canoes from landing on their beaches. But there was no time.

So they asked for two people willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the village instead, and two young lovers agreed.

That night, the chief sent a decree to the people of Kahali‘i stating that they must remain indoors from sunset to sunrise, making no light or sound, under penalty of death. The next morning, when everyone went down to the shore, they found the man and woman gone but two large rock formations standing at the entrance to the bay. The rocks were attached and looked as though they were guarding the bay and village. The chief said the guardians would keep unwanted canoes away from the treacherous currents that swirled around them.

The lovers—and their offspring—still stand guard at the head of Onomea Bay.

At Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, you can still see the two rocks from Twin Rocks Vista on our ocean trail.

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January 2018 Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden Newsletter

Please follow the link to our January 2018 Garden Newsletter

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