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.


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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