By Léo Azambuja

Kumu hula Kehaulani Kekua, of Halau Palaihiwa O Kaipuwai, is seen here chanting at the National Tropical Botanical Garden during the official opening of the newly revamped Hawaiian Life Canoe Plant Garden Jan. 17. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The first Polynesian sea voyagers who arrived in Hawai‘i almost two millennia ago, likely coming from the Marquesas Islands, didn’t bring cultivable plants or domestic animals, according to the late historian Te Rangi Hiroa. Once here, they depended on Hawai‘i’s indigenous plants — mainly of poor nutritional value — and birds and fish for food.

But this changed significantly when a second wave of seafarers came to Hawai‘i from Tahiti a few hundred years later.

“The advent of later settlers from the Society Islands, or Kahiki, changed the conditions materially, for they brought a number of cultivable plants,” Hiroa wrote in Arts and Crafts of Hawai‘i, published by the Bishop Museum in 1957.

In their sailing canoes, Polynesian settlers brought 27 plants that are known today as “canoe plants.” They also brought pigs, dogs, rats and the jungle fowl. What happened next was the development of an extraordinary self-sustainable society in one of the most isolated places on Earth.

“In Hawai‘i, the fertile soil, the genial climate, and the industry of the people produced a rich and abundant food supply. The people grew well-nourished, robust, and healthy; and in physique, stamina and intelligence they became one of the most advanced branches of the widely spread Polynesian people,” Hiroa wrote.

The taro patches at NTBG’s newly renovated Hawaiian Life Canoe Plant Garden. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Tobias Koehler, director of the South Shore Gardens at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, said each plant was brought along for a purpose, and usually for multiple purposes.

Celebrating the importance of canoe plants, NTBG officially unveiled earlier this year a facelift of one of its most important sections; the Hawaiian Life Canoe Plant Garden at McBryde Garden in Lawa‘i Valley. Koehler said this garden is the combination of a collection of the 27 plants the Polynesians “very scientifically, very specifically” chose to bring with them.

“I don’t want to pretend it was luck or happenstance that they made this undertaking and chose to bring what they chose; it was extremely deliberate,” Koehler said of early Polynesian settlers.

NTBG CEO and President Chipper Wichman is seen here speaking during the official opening of the Hawaiian Life Canoe Plant Garden Jan. 17. Photo by Léo Azambuja

NTBG CEO and President Chipper Wichman said to about 200 people attending the Canoe Garden’s opening ceremony on Jan. 17 that the revamped garden is part of NTBG’s master-planning efforts. New signs and panels tell the story and different uses of each plant, including their cultural importance. A wide footpath allows visitors to go on self-guided tour. One of the “crown jewels” of this facelift, Wichman said, is a series of cascading kalo terraces, or lo‘i. In the old days, kalo was Hawaiians’ main food staple.

“We envisioned really creating this as a much, much more vibrant Hawaiian-life area featuring not only the plants that our kupuna brought with them when they voyaged here, but also some of the physical manifestations of their culture,” said Wichman, pointing to the Hawaiian-style house, a hale, built on the garden’s ground a few years ago with a grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Near the Hawaiian hale — built almost entirely with plants at NTBG — a unique and large star compass was inlaid into the cement floor. The star compass, the revamped garden’s second “crown jewel,” Koehler said, was fashioned after a compass designed by Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The Hawaiian hale, or house, and an inlaid star compass at NTBG’s Canoe Plant Garden. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“Nainoa Thompson took the time to create a physical manifestation of what was taught and learned by navigators back in the day; and so the end result was a star compass similar to this,” said Koehler, adding the NTBG’s star compass was artistically modified with Thompson’s permission.

Koehler said the Canoe Garden is also “a classroom for everybody,” and a primary location for schools visiting NTBG. Pretty much every fifth-grader on the island goes through the garden, and a short walk through it can overwhelm the children with information, he said.

A patch of ‘uala, or sweet potato, at NTBG’s Canoe Plant Garden. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Unquestionably, the most important plant brought by Polynesians was the kalo, or taro. Cultivating kalo was no easy task. Hiroa wrote that in old Hawai‘i, more care and labor were devoted to kalo than any other food crop, and different methods were used depending on where it was cultivated. Early Hawaiians grew as many as 67 different varieties of kalo, according to Hiroa. The corm was cooked and made into poi, a purple sour mash, and the young leaves and stalks of some varieties were cooked as greens.

Out of the 27 plants brought by Polynesians, only one, the sweet potato, didn’t come from the Indo-Malayan region. The sweet potato, called ‘uala in Hawai‘i, came from South America, where in the indigenous Peruvian language Quechua, it is called kumar. Elsewhere in Polynesia, the sweet potato is known as kumara, kumera, kumala or umala. Historians believe the most plausible explanation is that early Polynesian navigators probably reached South America and brought the sweet potato back, spreading it throughout Polynesia.

Ko, or sugar cane, at NTBG’s Canoe Plant Garden. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Besides kalo and ‘uala, Polynesians brought many other plants that became important food sources, including mai‘a (banana), niu (coconut), ‘ulu (breadfruit), uhi (yam), pia (Polynesian arrowroot) and ko (sugar cane).

Hawaiians grew at least 35 and as many as 70 varieties of mai‘a, or banana, according to Hiroa.

The pia is still used today to make haupia, a pudding-like dessert made with pia starch and coconut cream. The major difference in today’s haupia is that it is made on the stove, boiling the coconut cream and pia together. In the old days, the ingredients were wrapped in ki, or ti, leaves and cooked in an earth oven.

Niu, or coconut, at NTBG’s Canoe Plant Garden. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The ki plant was also brought to Hawai‘i by Polynesians. Tough rare, the ki plant was sometimes used as food. In times of famine, the plant’s underground stem was cooked in an earth oven and chewed like sugar cane, according to Hiroa. Two other kinds of yams, the hoi (biner yam) and the pi‘a (five-leafed yam), were also mostly eaten during times of famine.

Other plants that Polynesians brought were ‘ohe (bamboo), ‘ape (no English name), ‘olena (turmeric), ‘awapuhi (wild ginger), ‘awa (kava), wauke (paper mulberry), pa‘ihi (no English name), auhuhu (fish poison plant), kukui (candlenut tree), hau (hibiscus), milo (Portia tree), kamani (Alexandrian laurel), ‘ohi‘a ‘ai (mountain apple), noni (Indian mulberry) and ipu (bottle gourd).

A noni fruit at NTBG’s Canoe Garden. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The Hawaiian Life Canoe Plant Garden may pay homage to the Hawaiian culture and society and provide a window to the past, but understanding how such an isolated island nation was able to be self-sustainable could deliver a bridge to the future in today’s Hawai‘i, where nearly 90 percent of the food supply is imported.

“There’s a Hawaiian proverb that basically goes a little like this, ‘I’m depending on you, and you’re depending on me,’ and that ‘you’ we’re talking about are plants,” Koehler said.

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