By Jan TenBruggencate
The loss of wetlands in the Islands to agriculture and development may have resulted in the decline of one of the iconic plants, the tallest of makaloa.
This noble sedge, which likes to grow in moist to downright soggy soil, was the source of one of the fine craft items of early Hawai`i, the woven makaloa mat.
Intricate geometric patterns called pawehe were often woven into the mats. Commoners might sleep on mats made of pandanus, but the prized makaloa mats, most famously woven on Ni`ihau, made the “finest sleeping mats in Polynesia,” said Te Rangi Hiroa, the doctor and former Bishop Museum director Sir Peter Buck.
The mats are now so rare than most residents of the Islands have never seen one.
The famed author Jack London wrote one of Hawai‘i’s most beloved stories, “On The Makaloa Mat,” first published in 1919. It tells a love story involving a Hawaiian prince and his beloved: “the things he said were fire of love and essence of beauty, and … he composed hulas to me, and sang them to me … nights under the stars as we lay on our mats at the feasting; and I on the Makaloa mat of Lilolilo.”
Makaloa grows in a number of places in the Islands, but only rarely are the conditions right for the fine, long stems that are useful for weaving. It’s not too unusual to find makaloa growing with its stems a foot to a foot and a half long. But for weaving, it is the ones approaching three feet that are needed. Some makaloa are said to grow to nearly six feet in length.
But you can grow it at home, as well. Honolulu Star-Bulletin gardening columnist and native plant expert Rick Barboza in 2008 wrote about the sedge:
“This plant looks great in ponds and can be used as an accent around rock features. It does best in full sun, and its roots can tolerate being fully submerged in water. Just put the whole pot in the pond and weigh it down with some rocks. It also does well planted in areas of your garden that for whatever reason continuously stay wet.”
Seeds are collected and makaloa is being replanted in a variety of locales around the Islands
The Kaua‘i community group Malama Hule‘ia, which is removing invasive mangrove in the Niumalu area, and replacing the alien invasive tree with native coastal and wetland plants, including makaloa.
In a 2001 paper on building wetlands and growing makaloa, Peter Van Dyke wrote that the art of weaving makaloa died out in the late 1800s. Only in the past few decades have cultural experts begun recreating the art form.
A number of crafters in the Islands have rediscovered the tricks of weaving makaloa, and you can occasionally find fine hats and bracelets of the material.
And rarely, because it takes great patience, a lot of time, and an amazing number of sedge stems, you can find a makaloa mat.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.