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The Language of Plants Part II

Updated: Aug 18, 2018

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

Taro - Photography by Jim Balyszak
Taro - Photo by Jim Balyszak


Various plants referenced in Emma Prince Kaua‘i Mysteries are considered ‘Canoe Plants’, plants introduced by the ancient Polynesians who arrived in the Hawaiian Islands two thousand years ago. They signify the bounty of the ‘āina, and are plants of significant import to the Hawaiian people.

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...

Kalo (Colocasia esculenta), known commonly as taro, is used to make poi, an iconic staple of the Hawaiian people. It was grown traditionally in rock terraces, lo‘i kalo, developed by the Hawaiians as part of their agricultural systems, such as the ancient ones once found in Mānoa and Limahuli. They were irrigated by diverting water from the streams flowing through these agricultural complexes into engineered canals known as ‘auwai—but no more than fifty percent of the water (wai) in the streams was used at a time. Kalo is also honored by early Hawaiians as an important part of family, and remembered in an ancient chant about creation and the birth of the first two sons of Wākea, the god of the sky. It is believed as the kalo plant matures and forms offshoots known as ‘ohā, the new generation of kalo produced symbolizes extended families. ‘Ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, comes from kalo, meaning ‘many ‘ohā’, signifying the family lineage has produced another offshoot.

Kī (Cordyline fruticosa), the Hawaiian name for what is commonly known Ti, is considered the Hawaiian ‘good luck’ plant, which is why it is planted around homes or used for luck on fishing boats. It is also used in ‘magic’ or for its protective mana when leaves were placed inside clothing, or wrapped around the waist, ankles, and neck. Ki wasn’t just grown for good luck or protection. It grew profusely, simply by placing stalks in the ground, and was one of the most versatile plants used by early Hawaiians to thatch structures, including peaceful temples, for clothing, rope, rain gear, sandals, plates, cups, oven liners, and wrapping food. The meat of the root provides a sweet, sticky food when baked, which the Hawaiians fermented for a mild alcoholic beverage. And, after Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, they learned how to distill it into a brandy, called ‘ōkolehao. Only green ki has ritual uses; the red and variegated varieties introduced much later to Hawai‘i have no traditional uses.

‘Awa (Piper methysticum), in the same family as black pepper and known commonly as Kava, is used to produce a narcotic drink from the roots. Used medicinally to calm and reduce pain, it’s also considered one of the most sacred plants, and offered to the akua, particularly Kāne and Kanaloa, the‘aumākua, and used in rites of divination and possession to assist a kahuna in predicting the future.

Wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera), the Paper Mulberry, is a small shrub used to make some of the finest kapa cloth, using a fermentation process and a second beating of the cloth to produce a variety of textures, which are then stamped with geometric designs using dyes scented with the fragrances of other plants introduced by the Polynesians. Kapa was associated with the goddesses Hina and Maikoha, the ‘aumākua and akua of the makers of kapa bark cloth which their bodies are said to have grown. It was used in ceremonial rituals; white kapa, known as ninikea, was used during family purification rites, and fine white kapa of the ‘oloa type was used to cover or gird images of the akua or to cover prayer or oracle towers of temples and heiau.

Kō (Saccharum officinarim), sugar cane, was used for food, flavoring and medicines. It became a source of burgeoning wealth for American plantation owners in a thriving sugar industry beginning in the nineteenth century, contributing to their growing political influence in the Islands and the eventual overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the end of that century. The sugar cane industry is now largely ‘extinct’ in the Hawaiian Islands.

Kukui (Aleurites moluccana), the Candlenut Tree, is so-named because kukui nuts are fifty-percent oil and can produce light by using the oil in stone lamps, or roasting the inner kernels, skewering them onto the midrib of a coconut frond, and setting them on fire to make ‘candles’ that burn for up to forty-five minutes. Fishermen chewed the kernels and spit them onto the surface of the water because the oil increased the visibility of the reefs below. The hard shells surrounding the kernels were also polished and strung into leis, and other parts of the trees were used for medicines and dyes.

Niu (Cocos nucifera), the Coconut Palm, has more uses than any other tree in the world. It produces nourishing coconut milk; wood from the trunk was hollowed and covered with tightly stretched shark skin for hula drums; the mesh-like fiber at the base of the trunk held chum for deep sea fishing; oil extracted from the meat of the dried nuts was used for hair and skin; and niu shells were used for drinking cups, spoons, storage containers, and rain catchers. The Niu can grow one hundred feet tall, and live up to one hundred years. Its strong trunk is a symbol of endurance, and it is referred to as a ‘lifesaver’ because the lives of those clinging to it during tsunamis were saved—it too will bend, but not break, in the heaviest of winds, and provide strength and protection from being swept out to sea.

Other Plants include: ‘Uala (Ipomoea batatas), the sweet potato, a relative of the beach morning glory vine; Mai‘a (Musa spp.), a species of banana often planted in the mountains to provide food for extended journeys or during times of famine, with mythological ties to an ancient culture known as the Mū, believed to live in the forests, surviving by eating bananas; ‘Ōlena (Curcuma longa), turmeric, was used medicinally for earaches and nasal congestion, to produce mustard or gold dyes for kapa, and for rituals of purification; ‘Ōhelo (Vaccinium reticulatum), the Hawaiian blueberry or huckleberry, produces delicious red berries believed sacred to the goddess Pele; before eating people would make an offering to Pele by tossing a branch into a flaming caldera; and ‘Ulu (Artocarpus altilis), the breadfruit tree, a staple food signifying growth, and connected to the wisdom of hula in the hope that it would ‘cling to them (the students) all the days of their lives’.


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