If you read our post on ancient Hawaiian agriculture, you know that Hawaiian culture really isn’t so ancient after all. In fact, native Hawaiians’ culture and polytheistic belief system actually derive from the Polynesian cultures from which the native Hawaiians hailed. Though the origins of these cultures extend thousands of years into the past, their coalescence and evolution into what we consider native Hawaiian culture was, historically speaking, a recent phenomenon. If you attend one of our Hawaii day tours, you’ll get a glimpse of how their culture has impacted our land today.
Arriving between 500 and 700 C.E., the native Hawaiians imported not only their south pacific cultures, but also the plants that were so integral to them. Known as “canoe plants,” as they arrived by canoe, these various agricultural products held both cultural and practical significance. We have already written about some, such as ko (sugarcane), olena (turmeric), awa (kava), and kalo (taro), in other posts. Today we explore a few more of these unique Hawaiian plants. You can see all of these and more on our special Hawaii day tours.
Referred to affectionately as “vomit fruit,” noni, or Indian mulberry, is definitely an acquired taste. Though noni is quite pervasive on the Big Island, you wont find it very often in stores or local dishes due to its pungent smell and rancid taste. It’s not uncommon to see noni trees surrounded by abandoned fallen fruit.
However, we would be much better off if we made more use of this powerfully medicinal plant. Ancient Hawaiians used noni almost exclusively as a medicinal treatment. Noni is anti-bacterial, immune boosting, and blood purifying. It is a powerful treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, rheumatism, and arthritis. A powerful anti-inflammatory, noni can even alleviate muscle and joint pain. Oddly enough, it can even be used to cleanse and soften hair. Used topically, noni disinfects wounds and can treat acne and bacterial infections.
Noni is an evergreen tree with large, shiny green leaves. The trees’ white flowers become the noni fruit, which is bright green when it is young and turns yellow or white as it ripens. The tree fruits year-round and can be easily cultivated through seed or cutting. If you cannot stand to eat the fruit, you can reap the benefits by making a tea with the leaves of the tree. Some people leave noni in a glass jar under the sun to let the juices seep out and ferment. Though not so tasty, this powerful tonic can benefit almost every bodily system. A quick shot of fermented noni juice followed up with sugar cane is an easy way to reap the benefits of noni.
The kukui or candlenut tree is a shade tree that grows at low to moderate elevations in mountain forest areas. The tree, which can grow to be 50 feet tall, symbolizes protection and peace in native Hawaiian culture. Its broad canopy is lush with angular, bright-green leaves and small white flowers. The actual kukui nut is about the size of a child’s fist, with a rough, dull green skin. Each tree can yield up to 100 pounds of nuts.
The kukui nut tree boasts an array of practical and medicinal benefits. Native Hawaiians used oil from the kernels in and lamps and torches, and even as a varnish. They also strung the leaves and nuts into lei. Chewed leaves were a known cure for thrush, and parts of the nut yield potent medicinal benefits as well. When baked, mashed, and blended with noni, the skin of the kukui nut treats skin sores and irritation.
Coconut, or Niu, is the quintessential tropical plant. Indeed, it is happiest grown close to the equator and enjoys sandy soil. The mention of coconut trees invokes images of white sand beaches, salty ocean spray, and tropical sunsets. But the coconut tree is far more than a symbol of luxury vacations. In fact, it is considered one of the most useful and versatile plants in the tropics.
The coconut tree can grow to be 100 feet tall, but it is surprisingly sturdy and resilient. Those who go into the trade of climbing, caring for, and trimming coconut trees can stand to make a lot of money in Hawaii. You can propagate the coconut tree by planting and partially covering an entire coconut. It will germinate in four to five months, and it will fruit fifteen months after flowering. Attendees of our Hawaii day tours are astonished by the height and strength of these abundant trees.
Though the trees are often propagated for decorative purposes, they are incredibly practical. The coconut fruit itself is highly beneficial, providing a source of fat, fiber, and sterile drinking water. Because it also contains electrolytes, coconut water is even more hydrating than regular water; you just want to ensure you select a coconut that is full size but immature. The coconut meat is a delicious treat that can be prepared as part of sweet or savory dishes. The meat contains high levels of medium-chain fatty acids that the body can quickly metabolize as an energy source. Blended with coconut water, the meat also yields coconut milk. Left alone on a desert island, one could survive for a long time on hydrating coconut water and nutritious, calorie-dense coconut meat. Even the flower sap is useful, as it yields syrup, vinegar, and wine.
Niu yields multiple medicinal benefits. Typically used in cooking, coconut oil can treat oral conditions through the practice of “oil pulling.” It also moisturizes the skin and treats candida and other bacterial overgrowth both internally and externally. Coconut water can balance pH levels. The leaves can be used to make baskets, hats, and jewelry. They’re also used in housing and as charcoal, brooms, and fans. You will often find coconut products in soaps, ornaments, instruments, clothing, mats, and cosmetic treatments.
We tell attendees of our Hawaii day tours that ulu, or breadfruit, may just be the answer to world hunger. A Hawaiian symbol of creation, the ulu tree grows tall and wide in a variety of growing conditions, making it a low-input and high-yield crop that can grow almost anywhere. A dense source of carbohydrates, ulu cooks like a potato when it is immature and becomes custard-like as it ripens and its starches convert into sugar. Many people prepare ulu the way they would prepare potatoes, but ulu is also great for making chips and baking flour.
Though it belongs to the mulberry family, breadfruit (which is technically a vegetable) bears almost no resemblance to the mulberry. Its fruit is bright green and bumpy and can grow to be eight inches in diameter. The leaves of the tree are long, leathery, and deep green. It is almost surprising that the tree’s fragile branches can bear such massive leaves and fruit. The tree fruits in the summer time, at full maturity yielding enough food for a large family, and its roots system grows to be incredibly diffuse and complex.
Like other canoe plants, breadfruit has a wide variety of uses. The sap of the ulu tree can heal wounds and skin irritation in combination with other plant products. Native Hawaiians even used it as glue. The male flowers of the tree can be dried and burned as a non-toxic mosquito repellant. You can propagate the ulu tree using cuttings from either shoots of the roots or the roots themselves.
Like ulu, ti leaves are incredibly adaptable. Suited to growing conditions from sea level to 4,000 foot elevation, ti leaves will thrive so long as they receive adequate moisture and sun. They typically grow 3-12 feet high, yielding leaves that are 1-2 feet in length. Though often grown as an ornamental, ti leaves are a native Hawaiian symbol of good luck and are also propagated to attract good fortune. They symbolize social status and divinity. Ti is a beautiful plant that ranges from green and yellow to bright or deep red, yielding light purple flowers in the spring time. You can easily propagate ti from cuttings.
Though humans rarely consume ti leaves as a food source, they are a versatile resource. Ti is great for feeding cattle and horses, and can even be made into a clear brandy called ole. Native Hawaiians wrapped laulau, a traditional pork dish, in ti. Ti leaves can also be used to create leis, hula skirts, luau table coverings, baskets, headwear, and more. Wrapping food in ti leaves is a great way to cool and preserve it. Medicinally, ti leaves are useful for muscle and nerve relaxation when boiled into a tea.