By Léo Azambuja
The coconut tree was one of the most resourceful plants for early Hawaiians. Almost every part of the tree was used for at least one — and in many instances several — purposes. The tree and its fruit provided food, water and materials used in almost every aspect of old Hawaiian society.
“It’s like the giver of life, this tree,” said Keoni Durant, a native Hawaiian who has been sculpting tikis and Hawaiian gods out of coconut tree stumps for 30 years. With more than 100 carved coconut tree stumps all over Kaua‘i, Durant says his art honors the tree that has given life to someone.
When Capt. James Cook first came to Hawai‘i in 1778, his crew observed a few groves of coconut trees near sea level, but nothing compared to the abundance they had seen in the South Pacific. Hawai‘i’s cool climate and its distance a little too far north of the equator make it less than ideal for coconut trees to thrive here.
Historians believe Polynesian settlers brought coconuts in their voyaging canoes — for food, water and propagation — to Hawai‘i. It is unknown, and debatable, whether coconuts were already here before the first Hawaiians. The layout of Pacific Ocean currents make it difficult for coconuts to float to Hawai‘i, but not completely impossible.
On Kaua‘i, coconut groves were present in Wailua (on a sacred grove belonging to the ali‘i), in Ha‘ena, Hanalei, Nawiliwili, Koloa, Lawa‘i, Waimea, Kekaha and Mana.
Two botanically identical coconuts of distinct shape were observed in early Hawai‘i. One had an elongated shape with a thick husk and a thin layer of meat. This coconut floats high in the water, survives almost four months in the sea and remains viable for roughly eight months.
A rounder coconut, with a thick layer of meat and a thin husk, is believed to have been introduced to Hawai‘i by Polynesians voyagers. This coconut is heavy and doesn’t float well, and it has a mean germination of only 66 days, making it quite improbable to have reached Hawai‘i by sea. Its rounder shape is believed to have evolved by selective cultivation.
“Man came to rely on this coconut for food, drink, shelter and fuel, the basic necessities of life,” H.C. Harries wrote in his book, The Evolution, Dissemination and Classification of Cocos Nuscifera L.
In Hawai‘i and elsewhere in the Polynesian Triangle, the coconut was known as niu. Only in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the coconut was unknown.
The base of the tree’s trunk was used for pahu hula, large hula drums dressed with shark skin. The trunks were also used in making food bowls.
Polished coconut shells were made into pu niu, a small hula drum strapped to the knees for hula. The shells were also used for bowls and ‘awa drinking cups.
The ku‘au, or the base of the leaf stalk, was used in pounding the walls of taro beds. The palu, a fibrous sheath taken from the base of the leaf stalk, was used for wrapping food, transplanting young plants or holding bait for deep-sea fishing.
Leaflets were used in making fans called peahi and children’s toy balls called kini popo. The leaflets’ midribs turned into skewers for kukui nut candles and shrimp snare. Leaves were used to poke under ledges to scare fish. They could also be used as kapu markers.
The water, flesh and shell were all used for medicinal uses. Hawaiians also made oil from coconut, and rubbed it in their bodies and hair.
Despite using coconuts for a variety of purposes, Hawaiians didn’t use them for food to the extent as other Polynesian cultures did. But when they did, they excelled at it. The haupia was a pudding made with coconut cream and starch from arrowroot, or pia. The kulolo, considered the finest delicacy in pre-contact Hawai‘i, was made with coconut cream and grated raw taro. A thick mix was wrapped in ti leaves and placed in an imu, or underground oven, for 10 hours or more.
Cordage from the coconut husk was called ‘aha. Its fibers were round, coarse and springy. Because it was coarse, the ‘aha could be wrapped around itself without slipping, and its elasticity was good to withstand sudden stress. ‘Aha was also water resistant, though it tended to kink when used as a fish line.
Making ‘aha was labor intensive and the knowledge laid with few experts. Hawaiians used an ‘ōniu (pointed stake fixed on the ground) to extract the husk, which was then soaked in salt water for four weeks, and sometimes several months. This helped in dissolving the gum holding the fibers together.
The shorter fibers were discarded, and the rest was twisted together. Depending on what it would be the purpose of the ‘aha, it could be twisted as a two-ply cord or braided into three to seven plies.
‘Aha was used for tying thatch roofs, and sometimes for holding a house’s framework. Several types of braided ‘aha were used for different purposes: In building and fixing canoes, for lashing the ama and for holding stone anchors. Hawaiians attached stone blades to adzes by using braided ‘aha. They also used it to secure in drum-making and to build handles for gourd water bottles.
Making of ‘aha cordage continued during post-contact, but declined until disappearing in the latter part of the 19th century.
In early October, the 20th Annual Coconut Festival at Kapa‘a Beach Park will honor the legacy of the coconut, with crafts, games, food, contests, live music and entertainment. On Sept. 30, the Courtyard Kaua‘i at Coconut Beach by Marriott will honor the event with a special dinner featuring celebrity chef Sam Choy and renowned fire dancer Kap Te‘o-tafiti.
Kenny Ishii, who is helping to organize the event, said besides honoring and celebrating the coconut in the Hawaiian culture, the festival represents the history of the Royal Coconut Coast, which includes most of Kaua‘i’s Eastside with its many coconut groves.
“Where in the whole state of Hawai‘i are you going to see a place like this? … Not in Honolulu, not in Maui,” Ishii said. “You look at where Marriott Courtyard is now, you see all the coconut trees … You look at all the trees, you go, ‘Wow!’ We take it for granted every day we drive by there.”
For those visiting the Coconut Festival, Ishii suggested trying the fresh coconut milk, squeezed on the spot by Te‘o-tafiti.
“That’s the best coconut milk I have ever tasted,” he said, sporting a large grin.
The 20th Annual Coconut Festival, presented by the Kapa‘a Business Association, will be held at Kapa‘a Beach Park Oct. 1 and 2. Visit kbakauai.org/coconut-festival/ for more information.