Part 1

Introduction—Part 1:

Plant Use in Ancient Hawai‘i—An Overview

The Polynesian settlers of the Hawaiian Islands utilized hundreds of native species of plants and ferns for food, shelter, clothing, cordage, canoes, tools and medicine as well as for spiritual and ceremonial uses.

Hawaiian ingenuity and craftsmanship produced many items found nowhere else in Polynesia, including unique weapons of war, musical instruments, and intricately woven lei.

Various types of hale (houses) were constructed from native materials, including the hale ali‘i (house of chiefs or royalty) as well as the hale kuku, where kapa (tapa) barkcloth was beaten. Scented and dyed with island plants, the colorful and fragrant kapa barkcloth made by ancient Hawaiians was the finest known.

The many unique products and practices of Hawaiian culture are attributable at least in some part to the many endemic (unique) species in the Hawaiian Islands.

An estimated 79% of all native Hawaiian flowering plants species are endemic (918 endemic species out of 1,163 documented native flowering plant species),[i] and this high rate of endemism is largely a result of the isolation of the Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

These many unique species also evolved due to the plenteous food resources and multitude of rich habitats found in the Hawaiian Islands.

When humans arrived in the Hawaiian Islands, they brought dozens of important plants with them and also utilized hundreds of native species. The wealth of endemic natural resources contributed to the creation of a unique Hawaiian culture that developed many products and traditions found nowhere else in the world.

[Illustration: Native forest scene]

Traditional Uses of Native Plants and Ferns

Ancient Hawaiians utilized plants from the mountains to the sea. A plant’s bark, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, wood, and sap (resin) might all have different uses. Flower bracts (modified leaves) also had specific uses, as did flower pollen.

Following is an overview of some of the main uses of native Hawaiian plant and fern species in ancient Hawaiian culture. All of the species mentioned in this brief overview had many other traditional uses, which are described later in the chapter.

The yellowish wood of ‘ahakea was made into papa ku‘i ‘ai (poi-pounding boards) as was the reddish wood of ‘ōhi‘a lehua. ‘Ōhi‘a lehua was also used to make ‘umeke (bowls), ihe (spears), kū‘au (mallets), and ki‘i (carved images of sacred temple gods).

The red-brown wood of lama was made into fish traps, while fishhooks were made from the hardwood olopua. Other uses of olopua include ihe (spears) and pou (house posts), which were also made with the wood of ‘a‘ali‘i, naio and ‘ōhi‘a lehua. Roofs of houses were often thatched with pili grass, particularly in the warmer and dryer areas.

The majestic koa tree was fashioned into large canoes, while the fragrant heartwood of ‘iliahi (the sandalwood tree) was ground into a powder used to scent kapa (tapa) barkcloth.

Hīnano, the inflorescence (flower cluster) of the male hala tree, was also used to scent kapa, as was the strong-scented maile. Maile leaves were woven into lei, and used in hula along with various mountain ferns such as palapalai, pala‘ā and pala.

Native blossoms woven into lei came from ‘ōhi‘a lehua, māmane, hala pepe, ‘ohai, ‘āwikiwiki, kou and nānū, the native gardenia. Another traditional lei flower was nuku ‘i‘iwi, notable for its long, curved blossoms that evolved to fit perfectly with the long beaks of honeycreeper birds.

‘Ilima growing near the sea provided orange flowers for the beautiful ‘ilima lei that were reserved for ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty).

Leaves for lei were gathered from various native species including ‘ōhelo, ‘ōlapa, pūkiawe, ‘ōhi‘a lehua ‘a‘ali‘i and pa‘iniu (the native lily). Lei were also made with the berries of the native ‘ākia, ‘ōhelo, ‘ūlei, and kūkaenēnē, and the seeds of the native kāmakahala, ‘ōhi‘a lehua and ‘a‘ali‘i. Also strung into lei were the fragrant seed capsules (“berries”) of mokihana, which were gathered from high on Kauai’s mountains.

In the ancient ‘ōahi (fire throwing) ceremony, flaming logs of pāpala and hau were hurled into the strong seaward winds blowing off the sea cliffs on Kaua‘i’s north shore, showering sparks over the ocean waters.

People in canoes beneath the cliffs attempted to catch the burning embers and sometimes tattooed themselves with the fiery logs to commemorate the event.

Pulelo ke ahi ha‘aheo i na pali

The firebrand soars proudly over the cliffs.

An expression of triumph. Referring to the firebrand hurling of Kaua‘i, or to the glow of volcanic fire on Hawai‘i.

(Pukui: 2735-300)

The sticky sap of pāpala kēpau was used to catch birds whose plumage was woven into colorful ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered capes and cloaks), mahiole (feather-crested helmets), and other beautiful products of Hawaiian featherwork.

The hīnano (pollen) of the inflorescence (flower cluster) of the male hala tree was used to preserve the elaborate and beautiful featherwork items. The bracts (modified leaves) of the hīnano were woven into the finest of the ancient mats, known as moena hīnano, used only by ali‘i (chiefs and royalty) and kāhuna (priests and experts in a given profession).

Kapa beaters (hoahoa and i‘e kuku ho‘ōki) and kapa-beating anvils (kua kuku) were made from numerous native trees, including kāwa‘u, koai‘e, uhiuhi, ‘ōhi‘a lehua, nīoi, kauila and pūkiawe.

The native hāpu‘u and ‘ama‘u tree ferns were valued for their pulu, the silky hair growing at the base of the young fronds. Pulu was used for embalming the dead and for various medicinal purposes.

Tree ferns were also valued for the edible, starchy pith in their trunks, which was cooked in an imu (underground earthen oven) and eaten. Also cooked and eaten were the starchy bases of the stems of the now rare pala fern.

The young fronds and roots of the kikawaiō fern were eaten raw, as were the pepe‘e (young coiled fronds) of the hō‘i‘ō fern, an ancient favorite eaten with ‘ōpae (mountain shrimp) and also with poi.

Ka i‘a ho‘opumehana i ka weuweu.

The fish that warms the clumps of grass.

Mountain shrimp, which cling to weeds and grasses along the banks of streams when a cloudburst occurs in the upland. Unlike the ‘o‘opu, they are not washed down to the lowland.

(Pukui: 1340-146)

The uluhe fern was used to make a medicinal tea. The fern ally moa and the tropical club moss wāwae‘iole were consumed for medicinal purposes and also used in lei.

Hala leaves (lau hala) were woven into baskets, floor mats and sails for voyaging canoes. A lei woven from hala fruitlets was worn during the Makahiki, an ancient harvest festival, to symbolize the passing of the old year and the beginning of a new year.

The inner bark of hau and olonā provided fibers used to make the strong cordage for canoe lashings as well as fishnets, which were also made from ‘ahu‘awa, a native sedge.

Hau was also used with olomea to start fires using friction. The long inner bark fibers of māmaki were another source of material for cordage and for making kapa (tapa) barkcloth.

The tough ‘ie‘ie vine, which grows mostly in wet areas, was woven into fish traps, fine baskets, and the base of the mahiole (feather-crested helmet). The buoyant wood of wiliwili was made into papa he‘e nalu (surfboards) as well as ama (canoe outriggers) and fishnet floats.

The broad, wedge-shaped leaves of loulu, the native fan palm, were used to provide protection from the rain and sun (loulu means “umbrella”). Loulu was also used for plaiting (interlacing strips of the material), particularly for the construction of heiau (sacred places of worship and refuge). Other plants used for plaiting included hala, makaloa and ‘aka‘akai.

Edible native berries eaten by the early settlers included pōpolo, ‘ūlei, ‘ōhelo, naupaka kahakai and ‘ākala, the Hawaiian raspberry. The fruit of the native lama tree is also edible and the fruit of the hala tree was eaten during times of food scarcity.

Along the shoreline and in the shallow ocean waters Hawaiians gathered limu that provided them with essential vitamins and minerals as well as spicy flavors. Limu was often mixed with pa‘akai (sea salt), another natural resource gathered from ponds along the coast.

Varieties of limu also had spiritual and ceremonial uses. Limu kala was worn as a lei to bring healing, and used in ho‘oponopono, the ancient cultural process of setting things right among others by offering and receiving forgiveness.

Offerings to gods were made with numerous native plants. ‘A‘ali‘i, lama, ‘ie‘ie, and maile were considered sacred to the hula goddess Laka. A small koa tree might also be placed on Laka’s hula altar to bring strength and fearlessness to the dancer.

Kohekohe was used as an offering at loko i‘a (fishponds), and ‘ōhelo’s fruiting branches were thrown into Kīlauea Volcano as an offering to Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. Also considered sacred to Pele was ‘ōhi‘a lehua, and pōpolo was considered an embodiment of the god Kāne.

All of these beliefs and practices of Hawaiians in ancient times remain just as true today.

Traditional Uses of Polynesian-Introduced Plants

Many important resources in early Hawaiian culture were provided by plants not native to the Hawaiian Islands, but instead brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian settlers. The Polynesians brought at least 24 species of plants to the Hawaiian Islands on their voyaging canoes. (See Polynesian-Introduced Plants, Chapter 9.)

One of the most important plants brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians was kalo (taro), a staple of their diet. Taro was cultivated extensively in lowland areas where ditches and channeling techniques were used to irrigate the lo‘i kalo (taro patches) that complemented the Hawaiians’ extremely productive loko i‘a (fishponds).

Dozens of varieties of ‘uala (sweet potatoes) were also cultivated, as were uhi (yams). Tall niu (coconut palms) were a source of food and also provided material for cordage as well as for musical instruments such as the pahu (drum).

Growing near the taro patches was pia (Polynesian arrowroot). Pia’s starchy tubers were mixed with shredded niu (coconut), wrapped in (ti) leaves and baked in an imu to make the tasty treat known as haupia. Kalo (taro) corms and niu (coconut) were also mixed with (sugarcane), wrapped in (ti) leaves and baked in an imu to make the pudding-like mix known as kūlolo.

The Polynesian settlers of the Hawaiian Islands also brought the tree called wauke (paper mulberry), which was the primary source of fibers for making kapa barkcloth.

Kapa was used to produce dozens of different products integral to early Hawaiian culture, including a great variety of fine clothing items such as long pā‘ū dresses and malo loincloths.

Kapa barkcloth was often adorned with intricately stamped geometric designs using dozens of colorful dyes, such as the beautiful golden colors of ‘ōlena, another plant brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesian settlers on their voyaging canoes.

The ancient Hawaiians often grew (sugarcane) and mai‘a (bananas) near their dwellings, and bananas were also grown in upland areas and at the forest’s edge along with groves of ‘uala (breadfruit trees). The wood of the breadfruit tree was fashioned into papa ku‘i ‘ai (poi-pounding boards), papa he‘e nalu (surfboards), and large drums.

The breadfruit tree’s leaves, bracts (modified leaves) and inflorescences (flower clusters) were used as a fine sandpaper to polish wooden bowls as well as kukui nuts that were strung into lei.

The nuts of kukui were also strung together and burned to provide the primary source of light in ancient Hawai‘i. The blossoms and leaves of kukui were used to make lei, as were leaves of (ti) and blossoms of (sugarcane).

Bowls for poi and other foods were made primarily from kamani (Alexandrian laurel) from the red-grained milo (portia) as well as from the wood of kou, a tree long considered to be a Polynesian introduction but now classified as indigenous (see Part 2 below). The flowers of kamani were also valued for their pleasant orange-blossom fragrance, which was used to scent kapa barkcloth.

Another Polynesian-introduced plant widely used in ancient Hawai‘i was ipu, the bottle gourd. Ipu were used as containers for food and other items, and were also made into musical instruments such as the pā ipu (double gourd drum), which was found only in the Hawaiian Islands.

Many Polynesian-introduced plants had important ceremonial uses in ancient Hawai‘i. Mai‘a (bananas) and kalo (taro) were used as offerings at loko i‘a (fishponds).

The mashed fruit of noni (Indian mulberry) was used as a poultice by binding it to the wound with kapa barkcloth, and leaves of noni were used for a medicinal tonic. A drink called ‘aumiki noni was consumed after drinking a tonic made from ‘awa (kava), another Polynesian-introduced plant. Noni, ‘ōhi‘a ‘ai (mountain apple), and ‘awa were part of many medicinal preparations (described in this chapter).

Described in the next two chapters are the many important native and Polynesian-introduced plants and ferns, and their extensive use in creating food products, dyes, scents, lei, containers, tools, weapons, canoes and various parts of hale (houses) and heiau (sacred places of worship).

Ritual and ceremonial uses are also described, as well as ancient Hawaiians’ use of plants for making musical instruments.

Medicinal Uses of Plants in Ancient Hawai‘i—The Kahuna Lā‘au Lapa‘au

Though ancient Hawaiians had no written language, they retained a detailed understanding of their own past through long and amazingly complex chants passed orally from one generation to the next.

Cultural knowledge was also passed on through apprenticeships, including training by a kahuna, who was a priest or an expert in a given profession.

An ancient proverb states: Ua a‘o a ua ‘ailolo.” (“He trained until he ate brains.”), which is explained to mean: He became an expert. In ancient days, the person who finished a course of study ate some of the brain of the hog or fish offered to the god of his art.”[ii]

The kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au was an herbalist and healer trained from an early age to identify, prepare and administer medicinal treatments made from the natural resources of the Hawaiian Islands.

The kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au had an extensive botanical, pharmacological and medicinal knowledge of the available resources, which included an estimated 300 or more plants and ferns (both native and Polynesian-introduced) as well as at least 29 animals (mostly marine creatures) and about 12 minerals, including pālolo (clays), ‘alaea (red ocherous earth) and pa‘akai (sea salt). These ingredients were prepared in a variety of ways and utilized to create a multitude of medicinal treatments.

Nānā no a ka lā‘au ku ho‘okāhi.

Look for the plant that stands alone.

Often said by those seeking strong medicinal herbs. A plant that stood by itself was considered better for medicine than one that grew close to others of its kind.

(Pukui: 2270-248)

Many rituals were followed by the kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au during the gathering of medicinal materials as well as during the preparation and administration of treatments. If the afflicted person was a female, prayers were offered to the goddess Hina.

The god Kū was prayed to if the patient was male. Prayers were also offered to gods associated with particular plants. For example, when gathering pōpolo (an important medicinal plant), a prayer was offered to the god Kāne.

At the conclusion of the medicinal treatment, a small piece of food was eaten. This was considered a closing (pani) and the food eaten was often from a marine species with a similar sounding name to the land plant that had been used in the medicinal treatment. This twinning of plants is detailed in the Kumulipo,[iii] the Hawaiian creation myth in which many land and sea species are paired.

Cultural Practices and Plant Preservation

Medicinal treatments described in the plant sections that follow are intended to provide a general understanding of traditional Hawaiian plant uses, and are not meant to be prescriptive. In most cases, the precise amounts of the different plant ingredients are not specified.

Cultural uses of native plants traditionally involved chants and other rituals (not covered here) that were an integral part of medicinal treatments. Readers of this book are encouraged to preserve rather than harvest native Hawaiian species.

E ‘imi i ke ola mawaho.

Seek life outside.

Consult a kahuna to see what is causing the delay in healing.

Said when a person lies sick, and recovery is slow.

(Pukui: 311-38)



[i] Evenhuis, Neal L., and Eldredge, Lucius G., Editors. Records of the Hawaii Biological Survey for 2000. Bishop Museum Occasional Papers, Number 68, 69. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 3/25/2002.

[ii] p. 305, Pukui, Mary Kawena. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983. Proverb 2772.

[iii] One version of the Kumulipo is: The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant. Translated and edited with commentary by Martha Warren Beckwith. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, Facsimile reproduction of first edition, University of Chicago Press, 1951. Including Foreword by Katharine Luomala, The University Press of Hawaii, 1972.