Hawaiian Heritage Plants

This is the time of year when times seems to stand still. Winter feels like it will never end. Dreams of tropical flowers and soft breezes start to become more prominent in my mind. So a book on Hawaiian heritage plants looked like just the thing to get my imagination going.

This isn’t an entirely soft and dreamy post. The lush beauty of Hawaii has a number of somewhat dark historical facts related to its plants. Other plants were and still are vital to the local economy and food chain. Here’s a list of some plants that are important to the history and culture of Hawaii.

Similarly to hibiscus, plumeria is a lovely addition to many leis, but is actually native to Mexico, Venuzuela, and Central America.

Plumeria image available from Calyxia Design.

Sandalwood: (‘iliahi)
The background on sandalwood on the Hawaiian islands was the most surprising out of all the plants I read about. For thousands of years, sandalwood has been of great importance because of the strong, seductive scent that originates from its heartwood. One of my favorite descriptions of use by the Hawaiian Islanders was that some young women would take sandalwood powder and mix it with coconut butter to create a wonderful body balm.
What I didn’t realize was that many of the native islanders were exploited by their own leaders to sell the vast sandalwood forests to outsiders looking to make a profit.

Hibiscus: (koki’o ‘ula or koki’o ke’oke’o)
I find it interesting that even though there is such an emphasis on encouraging use of native plants, in reality the plants that have really shaped many cultures are often transplants from other areas of the world. Take the hibiscus. The hibiscus is a native to Southeast Asia, yet it is now Hawaii’s most famous emblem as well as the state flower. In spite of its recognition, many varieties of this plant are endangered.

Taro: (kalo)
The taro needs growing conditions similar to rice, in that it likes to have a shallow amount of water all around it to flourish. Taro has been a staple of the Hawaiian diet for centuries, and is commonly called “poi” when the taro root is pounded and fermented.

Wild Ginger: (‘awapuhi)
A plant with gorgeous blooms, its thick sap can be easily used as a hair shampoo and conditioner.

Noni: (Indian mulberry)
Noni is frequently hailed as a modern day cure-all, especially by noni juice companies. Its effectiveness isn’t conclusive, and in the days when the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i was used a leper colony, noni was sometimes used without any positive result. It is supposedly good at treating lice!

For lots more on this subject, pick up Angela Kay Kepler’s “Hawaiian Heritage Plants”.

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