Canoe Plants: Foundations for the Future

Painting by Martin Charlot

“We stood to sail with my kindred beloved

To an unknown land below the horizon

We boarded-my kinsmen and I-our craft,

Our pilot well skilled, Ka-moho-alii.

Our craft o’ermounted and mastered the waves;

The sea was rough and choppy, but the waves

Bore us surely on to our destined shore-

The rock Nihoa, the first land we touched;

Gladly we landed and climbed up its cliffs.”

-from N.B. Emerson, Pele and Hiiaka

 Imagine being the first Polynesians to set sail for new land and arriving in Hawaii. It is hard to put words to the emotion that must have been felt by those discoverers. Here is Hawaii standing in all its majestic beauty with ample supply of fresh water, fertile soil, and bountiful reefs. Oh the excitement! The sigh of relief! The buzz of anticipation!

Upon arriving though they did find that there was one thing lacking. Food crops. The first explorers had to bring their food with them, not only for the voyage across the sea, but also for propagating thier new home. What did they bring? How would they decide? What would you bring? How did they grow from a few canoe groups to a mighty nation without a Costco, farmers market, or mainland co-op? Lets find out.

Careful Observers

Much care and consideration went into the choices of what to bring. But I have a feeling that by the time they sailed to Hawaii, the explorers had quite some practice and confidence in what to bring on those first voyages.  Having discovered and settled all throughout Polynesia prior to discovering Hawaii, they had their tried and true food plants. But not only were these plants capable of feeding an army of voyagers they also used much of the same plants to make their canoes and sailing vessels. Plants like Ulu and Coconut are such examples.

In this article we are going to examine 4 canoe plants*that were the staples of not only the Hawaiian culture but of all Polynesians who were brave enough to pack their canoe and set sail. In fact having these plants with them gave them the confidence they needed that they would survive and indeed thrive.

The Plants

Taro in Hanalei Photo:David Boynton

KALO (Taro)

“Three hundred kinds of KALO

Grown by na mahi’ai,

In uplands or in flooded ponds,

Where flows the fresh, cold wai.

The starchy tubers first are steamed,

Then pounded into poi,

The cooked leaves eaten as lu’au

Good for each girl and boy.”

-Julie Williams

Often referred to as the staff of life in the Hawaiian culture, Kalo has a special place in the hearts and bellies of the people. Legend heralded the plant as a brother and parts of the plant were named after the Hawaiian word ‘Ohana (meaning family). The ‘oha which was the sucker or baby kalo came from the mother corm (underground root).

If the saying is true, “you are what you eat”, then it’s easy to see why the Hawaiians population grew so effectively and efficiently. The way kalo grows is also very efficient and abundant. From one corm can come many keiki (children) in a few months time and those keiki are then replanted and pretty soon within a few years your whole lo’i (taro patch) is full.

There is dryland and wetland Kalo.  The Hawaiians planted these varieties to ensure a stock of Kalo for Poi year round. Wetland Taro was grown in stream banks, in marshy areas or in patches and mounds in pondfields the Hawaiians called Lo’i. Dryland Taro was usually grown upland and forest land was cleared to make room for this all important food crop.

Ulu / Breadfruit

Ulu ( Breadfruit )

The ‘Ulu is a beautiful tree,

With big round breadfruit very easy to see;

Boards for surfing and pounding poi,

Drums for beating by man or boy.

Caulking and glue from the milky sap,

Spread on branches, certain birds to trap,

Dried leaf sheath for sandpiper fine,

To polish kukui nuts and bowls to dine.

– Julie Williams

Ulu was outstandingly one of the most thoroughly utilized tree the Hawaiians had. Every part of the tree served a purpose, and was used in their daily lives. With the strong lightweight trunk, the Hawaiians made drums for Hula, surfboards to play in the waves, and it was also used across Polynesia to make canoes. Poi boards were in constant demand and the Ulu tree provided plenty of material. The bract was used for sandpaper to polish bowls and Kukui nuts for decoration.

The sap of the ‘Ulu tree was super sticky and served as  a glue. It was used as caulking for their canoes and it was strong enough to hold the pieces together across the Pacific Ocean. Bird catchers used it to catch the native birds whose feathers later turned into the capes used for royalty.

The plentiful fruit of the ‘Ulu tree was no doubt a staple. One fruit could provide food for a small family and was prepared in a variety of ways. They would pound it into Poi, or mix very ripe fruit with coconut milk. The most common way to prepare it was to bake it in an imu ( underground oven) or cook it on the coals of an open fire. I’ve had the privilege to eat it this way in Tahiti. It is wonderfully smokey and delicious!

Aunty shows us how it’s done…

Kukui Tree

Kukui Nut Tree

“Hele mai, hele mai.

Can you hear the sweet sound?

With light from the Kukui oil

We gather around.

Lighing our hales,

adorning our necks.

Kukui gives us many gifts,

It belonged on our decks.”

The Kukui nut tree was designated Hawai’i’s state tree for a good reason. It offers us a wealth of esthetic beauty and culture. One of its more major uses was for lighting the Hawaiians homes. Made into a candle by threading 10-12 roasted nuts on a central core and placed in a bowl. Each nut was lighted and burned for 2-3 minutes with a yellow flame and slightly fragrant smoke. In larger gatherings the candle was expanded to make a torch.

The seeds were very versatile and found their way into dishes, adornments for Hula, and medicine. It is still revered today as a high quality, medicinal skin oil.

Kukui bark is very rich in tannins and was used for ink for their tattoos. It also preserved fishing nets. One of the funnest uses for Kukui Bark ink was preserving surfboards. Plenty of the tattoo mixture was rubbed into the grain of the wood. After several stainings the board was then rubbed with the oil pressed from the seeeds.

The sap was also used for medicine to treat a variety of sores, rashes, blisters, and chapped lips. It worked well on the keiki.

The book “Hawaiian Plants and their Heritage” by Angela Kay Kepler states that “Kukui had so many uses it is impossible to enumerate them.”

Milo Flower


“Lining the path to Waimea’s door,

Are MILO trees along the shore;

In forests MILO’s never found,

Buoyant seeds float to seaside ground.

Beautifully grained, its rich brown wood

For food bowls, just like Kou, is good;

No funny tasting sap to fear,

Bright yellow flowers most of the year.”

– Julie Williams

True as the poem states, Milo was grown around Hawaiians’ houses, never in the forests. They kept it nearby for shade. Growing tall and bushy with an abundant of branches, it was and still is a pleasant homestead plant.

Milo was mostly prized for its beautiful, hardy wood. The wood gave no unpleasant taste to food , so it was used to make calabashes and plates. Milo was also very important to the Hawaiians for building the hulls of their canoes.

Parts of Milo were used for dye. The inner part of the fruit wall made a yellowish, green dye often used in Tapa (clothing) making. They used parts of the fruit for medicine. Today I’ve used the yellow sap that comes from breaking off a seed pod to help heal mosquito bites. The inner bark of the tree was used to make fiber and cordage.

*This is just a small example of the types of plants they brought. There are many more that are just as important as these and maybe even more so. Plants like coconut (Niu), turmeric (‘Olena), sweet potato (‘uala), , and sugar cane (ko), are just a few worthy of mention.

Resourceful and Versatile

The Hawaiians ability to adapt to a brand new environment was possible because they had such a keen and intimate relationship with their plants. Having carefully observed them for centuries and no doubt through much trial and error, they came to become a beautiful and resourceful culture. Refining their art wheather it be farming, woodworking, cooking, weaving, or caring for the ill became a passion that was easily recognizeable by the early arrivals of other cultures.

We have much to learn from these ancient peoples.

  1. They let nothing go to waste.
  2. They were keen observers of the value of plants.
  3. Their surroundings meant alot to them because it literally gave them food, shelter, and clothing.

Canoe Plants and their place in today’s gardens

Even though these plants belong to the people of old, they are just as applicable today as they were back then. The Hawaiian culture is having a revival. Hawaiians and non Hawaiians alike are recognizing that we need to return to a more simpler way of life. One that is closely connected to nature and to the plants that feed, clothe, and shelter us.

The canoe plants gave the Hawaiians the courage to venture forth into uncharted territory, confident that they would thrive because they had what they needed and what they had was sustainable. Their resources just grew greater with time.

Would you like to grow canoe plants in your garden?

We have Green Ti, Kukui, Milo, Mountain Apple, Olena, and Ulu. We also have sweet potato, sugar cane, banana, and taro.

All for sale!

Plus for the rest of October (thats 8 more days!) we are offering a 20% disccount to our dear friends on all of our native and canoe plants! Just mention you read this blog and come on up. It’s an exciting thing to plant a piece of history, and at the same time securing your future.

20% off Native and Canoe PLantsMahalo and a hui ho!


Books used:

“Plants of Old Hawaii” by Lois Lucas

“Plants in Hawaiian Culture” by Beatrice H. Krauss

“Hawaiian Heritage Plants” revised edition by Angela Kay Kepler

“La’au Hawaii Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants” Isabella Aiona Abbott


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2 Responses to Canoe Plants: Foundations for the Future

  1. Sue B October 27, 2015 at 6:04 am #

    Well written and love the plant photos ! Happy to say I have all growing in my yard 🙂

  2. alicia November 18, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    as a tour guide on the beautiful island of Kauai, I love learning more about these plants mahalo

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