By Jan TenBruggencate

Margaret Lovett is seen here with a stalk of Makaloa. Photo by Jan TenBruggencate

When the community group Mālama Hulē‘ia began removing weedy mangrove from a two-acre plot fronting Niumalu Park, it was a little like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates.

We didn’t know what we were going to get.

Under the direction of board member Carl Berg, the Mālama Hulē‘ia team, school kids and other community volunteers planted numerous native coastal species throughout the flat, shoreline parcel.

Some of the native plants did well. Some did not. And some clearly preferred certain microenvironments to others. But one iconic Hawaiian species thrived in the wet, mud soil of the central area, despite significant salt water intrusion. It was the sedge called makaloa or Cyperus laevigatus.

And it is helping spawn a revival of an ancient Hawaiian weaving art.

Kumu hula Sabra Kauka, a Mālama Hulē‘ia board member, invited a team of Kaua‘i weavers to the site in March to share stories and to try collecting.

Much has been lost about the art of weaving makaloa, but in recent decades it has undergone a revival. On Kaua‘i, the resurgence was led by the late Esther Makuaole, a Kona weaver who had moved to Kaua‘i. She took on a small group of apprentices, several of whom came to the Niumalu gathering.

A Makaloa clump at Niumalu. Photo by Jan TenBruggencate

The weavers have mostly worked with hala, the long-leafed pandanus, from which mats and hats and so many other items are woven. Then a few years ago, they started experimenting with makaloa.

They have collected from small remnant patches in places like Maui’s Kanahā Pond, and worried about the availability of the plant.

The Mālama Hulē‘ia group wondered how best to collect samples for weaving, without damaging the plants.

“Oh, we know how to harvest,” said Kaua‘i weaver Margaret Lovett. “You thin them. You want to look for the long, fat ones, and ones that have started lying down.”

She reached down into the clump and plucked a single stalk. “Like this,” she said. Up came a single, long, green, stalk, not much fatter than a pencil lead.

Margaret Lovett’s makaloa hat. Photo by Jan TenBruggencate

Weaver Carol Lovell has been growing makaloa in pots, seeking the right conditions for her makaloa to thrive.

“I’ve been told that different islands have different varieties of makaloa. To my knowledge, what I have is the Kaua‘i variety. I’ve been growing it for about 10 years. I’ve used different containers, differing soil combinations … it’s a work in progress. In certain conditions, they get thick and tall,” Lovell said.

Keahi Jo Manea has been weaving lauhala, for many years, and looks forward to collecting enough makaloa to make a hat. She said the Niumalu project is a great asset to the island — which previously did not have enough makaloa for weavers to use.

She looks forward to experimenting with preparing the sedge for weaving, and whether different drying techniques — like full sun or shade — will produce different shades.

“I’m just really excited to begin working with it,” Manea said.

(Disclosure: author Jan TenBruggencate was a founding board member of Mālama Hulē‘ia.)

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