Ethnobotany is the study of the traditional cultural uses of plants. This section summarizes only a few of the uses for native Hawaiian and Polynesian introduced plants. Many of these plants are found in the East Maui Watershed.
When Polynesians from the Marquesas arrived at the Hawaiian islands about 1500 years ago, they found an island uninhabited by other people, plenty of fresh water, forested mountains and healthy populations of fish in the sea. These abundant resources were essential to survival on the islands.
The first settlers of the Hawaiian islands were heavily dependent on plants to provide their daily needs, from food, to food servers, water gourds, ropes, clothing, housing material, fish nets, canoes, musical instruments and much, much more.
These settlers also introduced plants and animals from their native homelands to Hawaii for food. These include kalo (taro) and ʻuala (sweet potato) for planting, and domesticated pigs, chicken and dogs.
Many of the Polynesian introductions are still with us today. However, many of our native Hawaiian plants are in danger of becoming extinct. This may be due to a number of factors, including human development and the spreading of noxious weeds – plants that spread quickly, and are difficult to remove once established.
East Maui Watershed Partnership is dedicated to preventing the spread of noxious weeds through a weed irradication program within our fenced areas. The fences we build also deter the spread of weeds since they keep out feral animals that carry seeds in their fur and feet.
Nets & Ropes
One of the most important things the Hawaiian forest provided was cordage for making ropes. Remember, the first settlers did not have glue or nails, so everything had to be tied together with rope and string. The primary plant used to make cordage was olonā, touchardia latifolia. In fact, this plant was so important to the people, it is the only endemic non-food forest plant to be farmed and cultivated by the Hawaiian settlers.
Niu (coconut) husks, the inner bark of Hau trees (Polynesian introduction), and ʻAhuʻawa (a native sedge) were also used to make cordage.
In the Hawaiian forest lived the giant koa trees (Acacia koa). Easily identified by their sickle shaped leaves, koa trees can grow up to 65 ft tall and 6 ft in diameter. The smallest canoes seated one, the largest eight. Canoes were built to last a lifetime. The expert advise of a kahuna kālai waʻa, or the head of a sort of canoe builder’s “guild”, was sought in the selection and building of a canoe.
Today, the giant koa is threatened by loss of habitat. Koa only grow in mid to upper elevation forests. With the grazing of so many feral and domesticated ungulates, cows, deer, goats, many of the island’s koa seedlings do not make it to maturity. Canoes today are made of a few smaller koa trees, instead of one large one. Will there be a day when we can’t make any more koa canoes?
The climate on the Hawaiian islands is typically mild, requiring only a few items of clothing. These are the malo, or loincloth worn by men, the paʻu, a skirt for women, and the unisex kihei, or shawl. All of these pieces of clothing were made from barkcloth, or kapa. The methods for making kapa originated from Polynesian roots.
The Hawaiians typically used two forms of paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) to make kapa – wauke, and poʻaʻaha – both Polynesian introductions. The native māmaki (Pipturus species) was also used, and produced a kapa fit for a king.
Kapa is made by compressing plant material into sheets which are then dyed, decorated and scented. Both Polynesian introductions and native Hawaiian plants were used in the making of kapa. There are basically four parts to making kapa: processing, decorating, coloring, and scenting.
To make kapa, bark is stripped from branches, soaked for three days, briefly beaten and then sun dried. When enough material had been collected for a malo, paʻu, or kihei, all of it is soaked overnight, loosely pounded, layered with maia leaves and then left alone for a week to mature. When it is ready, the material is beaten flat with a square beater, commonly made from endemic hardwoods such as koaiʻa (Acacia koaia) or kauila (Alphitonia ponderosa or colubrina oppositifolia).
Kapa is decorated with intricate lines or stamps carved into tight geometric patterns. Lines are made with ʻohe (hawaiian bamboo) or wood stylus. Stamps are applied to kapa in repeated rows or clusters. Inks are made of kukui nut shells and kukui nut oil. Other ways of decorating kapa include watermarks and ribbing, which creates a corduroy-like texture.
The Hawaiians used many hues in their kapa. Plain kapa is a creamy white. Finished kapa colors included beiges, yellows, pinks, blues and greens. Many different plants and plant parts were utilized to create these dyes. ʻAkala, the Hawaiian raspberry, was used to make red hues. ʻUkiʻuki and ʻōlapa berries were used to make blue. There were many sources for yellow: hōlei, kūkaenēnē bark, maʻo flowers, noni root, and ʻolenā rhizomes.
Kapa is traditionally perfumed by plant material. Sometimes the fragrance is extracted from the plant and mixed with the dye, other times, the kapa is stored with fragrant plant parts. Plants used for this process include ʻōlapa bark, niu flowers, lauaʻe leaves, kupaoa, sandalwood, and more.