Makaloa at Niumalu
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.