Ever since I visited Ulupo Heiau a few months ago and then the Lyon Arboretum, I feel the need to share about some of our Native Hawaiian plants, their value and their history. According to Lyon Arboretum, the plants that we have on our islands came three ways: 2% by Wind, 23% by Water and 75% by Wings. It's hard to say exactly when the plants first came to the islands but we know that many came with the first settlers. There are four parts to this series of articles. Let's start with the Ti leaf plant.
It has been said that the first Polynesian settlers (Kanaka Maoli or “the people”) came to the Hawaiian Islands in search of new land between 300-500 A.D. They brought along many seeds, tubers and roots in their canoes, all for the purpose of starting a new life. One of the plants that they introduced was the ti plant, known to the Hawaiians as Ki, a member of the lily family. It is known in other parts of the world as cabbage palm and good luck plant. They are native to tropical southeastern Asia, Papua New Guinea, northeastern Australia, the Indian Ocean and parts of Polynesia.
Ti leaf plant at Ulupo Heiau
The ti plant is a tall, woody plant that grows from 3-12 feet with clusters of oval, blade-shaped leaves that may be green, dark red, purple or a mixture of these colors. The leaves are from 1 to 2 feet long. It is a very hearty plant growing flowers and berries.
Ti plant with flowers and berries
Ki was considered sacred to the Hawaiian god of agriculture, Lono, and to the goddess of the hula, Laka. It was also an emblem of high rank and divine power. The kahili, in its early form, was a Ki stalk with its clustered foliage of glossy, green leaves at the top. And to this day, the kahili looks like the ti leaf plant.
The leaves were known to possess divine power, thus used by the kahuna priests in their ancient religious ceremonial rituals as protection to ward off evil spirits and to call in the good. Thus it is still customary for many homes in Hawaii to have ti leaf plants surrounding their homes. Not only does it create a beautiful landscape but it also brings good luck.
Ti leafs can be used as a fan to ward off flies that may hover over food. It can also be used as place mats, plates and table decoration. The beautiful green leaf has a clean look and decorating with it makes tables look authentically Hawaiian. But more than what has been mentioned, the leaves had practical purposes like to thatch a roof, to weave sandals, make hula skirts, leis and rain capes. It is also used to wrap food when cooking, such as the lau lau.
Make a ti leaf lei.
Cut leaves in halves.
Iron leaves to make them soft.
Tie a knot with two halves.
Twist both leaves in one direction, to the right. Then twist around each other.
Pardon my foot, but using your toes gives you leverage.
Add a leaf when necessary.
Keep twisting both leaves to the right.
Tie ends together.
Lei and bracelet.
Medicinal purposes galore! Ti leaf can be used to wrap medicinal herbs in to apply to parts of the body. You can put hot stones in it and use as hot pack. Green ti leaves were boiled to make a drink to help nerve and muscle relaxation. The steam from boiled leaves and young shoots aided as a decongestant. The fragrant flowers were also used for asthma.
Mulan wearing her lei
The roots are used for various purposes. It can be baked and eaten as a dessert because it is sweet and starchy. But more than that, I thought it was neat that in old Hawai'i the roots were boiled, fermented and distilled to make a potent liquor called 'okolehao. It was a moonshine made illegally in Hawaii’s deep valleys many years ago. It was one of King Kalakaua’s favorite drink and referred to as a “gift from heaven.” According to history, the Hawaiians started to make this brew with the help of an English officer and an Australian settler. They made it in the iron pot that whalers used to boil blubber in and thus got the name 'okolehao or “iron bottom.” My research shows that it may be currently being made legally by a company in Maui known as Sandwich Islands Distilling Inc. I’ll have to check that out since a lot could have happened since I picked up this information dated 2003. The recipe calls for ti root, rice and sugar cane. As you can see my interest peaked when discussing this wonderful liquor. I am quite curious as to what it tastes like and will let you know if I ever get my hands on some.
Ti leaf plants are everywhere in Hawaii. It is something that we take for granted. I hope that my sharing this information with you will make you appreciate its value much more. Aloha.