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The Language of Plants Part I

Updated: Aug 18, 2018

This is the first of two journal entries describing various plants referenced in Emma Prince Kauai Mysteries. Have fun discovering them in A Telling of Ancestors and Waking the Sleeping Giant, due for release Fall 2018.


Once a gardener, always a gardener, which is why Emma Prince Kaua‘i Mysteries includes many beautiful plants found on Kaua‘i. But, it is the language of plants—the interpretation of their meanings, traditions, and symbolism—which makes them integral to the mystery, history, and magical realism of this beautiful island paradise, where the people are ever mindful of the past, signs or omens, ancient superstitions, legends, and mythology.

Bird of Paradise Photo by Jim Balyszak

It is the language of plants—the interpretation of their meanings, traditions, and symbolism—which makes them integral to the mystery, history, and magical realism of this beautiful island paradise...

With this in mind, Piakalike, a recurring character in the Mysteries, is a kahuna la‘au lapa‘au, an herbal or traditional healer. The auntie is knowledgeable about the remedies derived from plants used in medicinal and everyday practices for whatever ails you, but also which plants are used to honor the land and family,‘āina and ‘ohana, and the gods and ancestral guardians, the akua and ‘aumākua.

Here are a few plants in A Telling of Ancestors and Waking the Sleeping Giant:

Plumeria (Melia), trees with fragrant, long-lasting flowers cultivated commercially for the lei trade. The plumeria is also linked to the dead and traditionally planted in cemeteries; an old common name for it is ‘make-man flower’—another is ‘dead man flower’.

Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae), a stunning, long-stemmed, plant widely cultivated for the cut-flower trade, and prized for its bright orange, ‘bird-like’ tropical flower.

‘Ilima (Sida fallax), a principle lei flower of ancient Hawai‘i, conveys honor and signifies a connection to ancient Hawaiian traditions. The gold-hued, paper-thin, nickel-size flowers are used in leis, and in divination (hailona).

Ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha), a hardwood tree, also known as the ‘ohia tree’, is found in native forests such as those once flourishing in the Limahuli Valley. Favored in Hawaiian culture for its unopened buds, flowers, and young silvery leaves of the red-blossomed variety, it was the subject of songs (mele), dances (hula), chants (oli) and legends (mo‘olelo). The wood was used to carve images of the akua Kū and Kāne, and it was considered sacred to such female akua as Laka, Hi‘iaka, and especially Hina, goddess of the ‘ōhia lehua, who in one of her many forms, or kino lau, was known as Hinaolu‘ohia—Hina of the growing ‘ōhia tree’. The ōhi‘a lehua is regarded as a symbol of strength because it can survive in harsh climates, which is why it was used for house construction, fences, and heiau structures, such as oracle towers.

Pala‘ā (Sphenomeris chinensis), ‘water of the lace fern’, a native Hawaiian plant also known as pala‘e, is distinguished by its fine texture and thin fronds with no hair on them. Waikapala‘e, one of the wet caves on the north shore of Kaua‘i, takes its name from the lace fern. Pala‘ā also means ‘brownish-red’, and was used to produce a brownish-red dye from old leaves used to color a type of kapa made from mamaki bark. Pala‘ā is rare, and used medicinally, for leis or garlands, and in religious rites. In legend, Hi‘iaka, Pele’s sister, wore a garland of braided fronds of pala‘ā as a skirt around her waist for protection while on a journey for her sister, and used the fronds to entangle the legendary mo‘o dragon guarding the entrance of Waikapala‘e.

Maile (Alyxia oliviformis), a glossy, green vine with a sweet, spicy vanilla fragrance used to scent kapa bark cloth, was believed sacred to Laka, goddess of hula. Scarf-like leis made of pala‘ā and maile were made as offerings to the gods, and to decorate hula altars.

‘A‘ali‘i (Dodonea viscosa), a shrub with bright red or red-purple clusters used to make lei, symbolizes endurance because it could stand against the worst gales, twisting and bending, but seldom breaking off or falling over. There is an old Hawaiian boast—which my family uses as a frequent mantra—‘He ‘a‘ali‘i ku makani mai au; ‘a‘ohe makani nana e kula‘i’—‘I am a wind-resisting ‘a‘ali‘i, no gale can push me over’. If you believe—you won’t be knocked down, and can hold your own in the face of adversity.

Hala (Pandanus tectorius), the Screwpine, is considered a Polynesian introduction, but is also native based on analysis of fossilized remains found near Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kaua‘i dating to 1.4 million years. Large groves of hala were common, such as those once found at Naue, Hā’ena, and Kē’ē. The dried fruits resemble pineapples and separate into sections known as ‘keys’, and the durable leaves, lau hala, were used to weave sails for canoes, mats, pillows, baskets, and interior walls and floors of houses (hale). The beautiful, fragrant yellow-orange, finger-shaped flowers are used to make lei hala, which are given and worn to mark the end of a journey, or to signify the completion of a task. Hala was also used in water of purification.

Pōhuehue (Ipomoea pes-caprae), the woody-stemmed beach morning glory vine, an indigenous shoreline plant found rambling across Kaua‘i beaches, holds many oceanic connections. Worn by the goddess Haumea as a skirt around her waist while she fished, it is believed pōhuehue can reach out across the beach to draw you in from the waves.

Koa (Acacia Koa), Hawaii’s largest and most common native tree, is fast growing and can reach heights of over one hundred feet. Prized for its beautiful reddish-brown wood, which polishes to a gold luster, the Hawaiians used it for house timbers, canoes, paddles, bowls and furniture. Koa canoes are highly prized, although wood is extremely scarce now for the scale needed, but modestly sized trees are used today for landscaping.

Hau (Hibiscus tileaceus), a sprawling shoreline tree with prostrate limbs, heart-shaped leaves, and yellow flowers, was either introduced to Hawai‘i by the Polynesians or drifted by sea to the Islands. The soft, porous wood was used for canoe outriggers, fish-net poles, game spears, and kite sticks, and the tough inner bark for ropes and cords.


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