By Jan TenBruggencate

banana_plantsAll across Hawai‘i there is evidence of mai‘a-ki trails.

This is a term for ancient pathways whose routes are often marked by banana and of ti plants.

In many cases they are long lost pathways, identifiable only from afar, marked by the large shiny green leaves of ti-leaf plant (ki) and the larger, paler green banana (mai‘a) leaves.

I can remember hovering in a helicopter deep between the folded cliffs of a west Kaua‘i valley.

High above nearly vertical faces, hundreds of feet above the streambed, there grew a clump of banana.

How could they have gotten there? Most edible banana do not produce seed, and they grow from suckers cut from the base of existing plants.

Clearly, someone carried it and planted it there.

Was this clump of mai‘a along a once-established trail? Did someone plant it here to provide a food source for hikers traveling long distances on a known path, now long lost?

Was it some kind of marker? Could it have mark the location of a cool spring? Or a place where pathways crossed? Or another site of special significance?

Similarly, you will see clusters of green ki in the most remote spots. Hawaiian ti plants do not form seed. (Other varieties, red and green, do flower and set seed.) So these patches were most likely planted by human hands long ago.

Throughout the Islands, you find these sentinels—amid the generally smaller leaves of most forest plants, there are the big-leafed banana and ti. They are readily identifiable from a distance.

Both are important plants for the native Hawaiian community.

The leaves of both plants were used to wrap food before cooking. Ti was used to make cordage and rain capes. Banana plants were used for cordage, for fashioning quick rain shelters and for many other purposes.

Both were valuable food sources. Banana fruits were eaten raw and cooked. And the thick roots of ti were cooked and the sugary result eaten as a confection.

Jan TenBruggencate

Jan TenBruggencate

I know a trail along the edge of the Waimea Canyon where erosion a few years ago unveiled an old underground oven, an imu. Against the bare clay of an earthen cliff face, you could readily see the discolored soil in a U-shape against the background soil. At the bottom was the black charcoal left by the coals that had once been used to cook the food in this small imu, no more than a foot wide and 18 inches deep.

What might have been the dish prepared in this old backcountry imu? Was it a small bird, or some cooked banana or even ti root.

That particular old imu, which looked to have been built and used only once, has now long since eroded away. But like the patches of big-leafed greenery along the mai‘a-ki trails of the islands, it recalls an older time, when people traveled on foot, and relied on supplies they could find along the way — supplies their forefathers had planted there for them.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.