POLYNESIAN VOYAGERS CROSSED UNCHARTED ocean in double-hulled canoes to discover one of the most remote landmasses on Earth more than 1,000 years ago. These savvy sailors brought supplies with them that would allow them to inhabit territory they predicted would be unoccupied by humans.
More than two dozen “canoe plants” joined the ancient mariners in the form of roots, seeds and cuttings. The plants would allow the settlers to survive, serving as various resources, such as medicine, bedding and mats, and, of course, food. While they aren’t endemic to Hawai‘i, these species are considered indigenous, or native, because they were – and still are – revered by the Islands’ original inhabitants.
“They knew how important it was to be able to bring their plants with them,” says Michael DeMotta, curator for Living Collections at the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
By the time the Polynesians arrived in Hawai‘i, they had learned new ways to help the plants thrive, including the unique method of propagating kalo (taro) in wetland fields.
“We survived for many, many centuries with only these plants,” says cultural practitioner kumu (teacher) Sabra Kauka. “These plants and the kai, the ocean.”
Each plant carries its own cultural significance. Kalo, for example, represents the “staff of life.” The creation story of Hawaiians centers around two gods, whose firstborn did not survive. At the spot where their baby was buried, a kalo plant subsequently grew. Their second child, named Haloa in honor of their firstborn of the same name, was a healthy boy from whom the Hawaiian people are believed to be descended. Haloa went on to nurture the kalo that sprouted from his older brother – a reminder that the earth will provide if it is properly nourished.
Because of the care that Hawaiians put into their food, the plants tended to them in return. Kalo, ‘uala (sweet potato) and ‘ulu (breadfruit) were their staple foods, usually steamed in an imu (underground oven) and paired with fish.
The edible canoe plants provided nourishment for Hawaii’s people for centuries, and many of the species still thrive today. Contemporary chefs in Waikiki are aware of the rich, authentic flavors they add to meals, and have found ways to harmoniously incorporate them into their dishes.
Moreover, Waikiki, during the 1920s, was once the prominent site of the state’s wetland lo‘i (taro patches). Other canoe plants were grown here as well, including niu (coconuts) and mai‘a (bananas).
“Honolulu was like the breadbasket of the island of O‘ahu,” says DeMotta who adds that O‘ahu’s south shore was where many of Hawai‘i’s ali‘i (royalty) resided. “You didn’t ever have to leave Waikiki.”
Consider sampling a dish with one of Hawai‘i’s famed canoe plants while you’re in Waikiki, and reflect in the significance of these mighty flora and their continued importance to native people. “If people embrace eating Hawaiian food, then that’s better for us; it’s better for Hawaiians and the culture,” says DeMotta.
Breadfruit is one of the most highly esteemed of the canoe plants, particularly on Kaua‘i, where it is said to have been brought by the Tahitian voyager, Mo‘ikeha, who later became ali‘i nui (high chief) of the island. The starch can be eaten in a number of ways and is a complex fibrous carbohydrate. When green, it can be baked or boiled and tastes like a potato. When ripe, it becomes sweeter and can be used in desserts.
Bananas in Hawai‘i today are nothing like those that were originally brought to the Islands. The fruit was used more like a starch and baked or boiled while still green. A little coconut milk was poured onto them after removing the bananas from an imu, creating a filling, nutrient-packed meal. Additionally, banana stumps were used to ignite heat in an imu. They were laid in the ground with water before a pig or fish was settled in, and the heat from the ground would cause the stumps to steam and cook the meat.
This plant is best known for being the main component of poi, the pounded and baked or steamed root of the plant. You’ll find this dish at several markets and places like lu‘au (Hawaiian feasts). Poi was a popular edible for natives because of its ability to keep its nutritional value for extended periods of time. The leaves of the taro plant, which are also edible, are heart-shaped, and its thick bulbous root, or corm, has a characteristic purple tint.
KO (SUGAR CANE)
This plant prevailed in Hawai‘i long before sugar cane became a commodity synonymous with the Islands’ plantation era. Hawaiians used its sweetness for many purposes, including masking the bitter taste of plant medicine. Juices from its thick stalk were also used to sweeten desserts.