Grounded in Culture

The culture of ancient Hawai‘i was deeply rooted in nature. It still is — thanks to places like Maui Nui Botanical Gardens.

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Story by Judy Edwards | Photography by Ryan Siphers

I remember reading a sailor’s account of a walk he took on a Hawaiian island after long weeks at sea. This would have been the early 1800s, post-Western contact, but pre- the epidemics that would roar through the Hawaiian world like a wildfire, emptying out its communities. He walked all day, and not once was he out of sight of orderly villages and farms that lay not only along the shore, but high up on the slopes of the island. Hawaiians, though celebrated fishermen, were also deeply rooted in the uses and importance of plants. As inhabitants of the most isolated islands on Earth, they had to be. Some of those plants were carefully carried to Hawai‘i from elsewhere in Polynesia — “canoe plants” whose uses and stories were essential. Others were endemics — plants that evolved to fit this island ecosystem precisely, and hence are found only here; their uses and stories would unfold as the need to learn them arose. Why would stories be essential? For a culture that had no writing, no history books to refer to, stories were a way to personify and anchor in time the meanings and importance of events, people, and in this case, plants that fed and housed and healed.

Pre-contact Hawai‘i’s intense isolation made it a laboratory where evolution ran wild, experimenting with function and form. Many plants that arrived here on the wind or waves, or on the wings and feet (and in the digestive system) of birds changed over time, becoming unique to this place. Without animals to chew or trample them, some plants lost their mintyness (which in plants is a repellent), their hardiness or thorns. Imagine those vulnerable plants when foreign invaders (people included) arrived. At Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, those precious endemics are sheltered, nurtured, cultivated and shared. The Gardens is also a haven for indigenous plants (found naturally here but also naturally elsewhere), as well as a locally famous repository of canoe plants and all of the history entwined with them. Here are just a few.

Hawaiian Cotton

MA‘O

Gossypium tomentosum, Hawai‘i’s native cotton

Cotton is not a plant you expect to find in Hawai‘i. That is no fault of cotton’s; its continental history is vast and brings to mind images of industry and empire, slavery and war. Hawai‘i’s native cotton has been here all along, dotting the coast and sunning itself, sometimes spreading up and out to bushes eight feet high or more, and covered in fluffy white bundles. Hawaiians did not use it in cloth in the way that the western world did (although they did stuff pillows with it). But they did make it into a green or yellow kapa dye (leaves and flowers, with a little egg white thrown in), while dried ma‘o flowers were part of a medicine for severe stomach cramps. The name ma‘o is a contraction of the Hawaiian ‘ōma‘o (green), and that is also the name of the native Hawaiian thrush with the greenish sheen on its feathers. Despite the impressive historical résumé of continental cottons, it is the country cousin, the Hawaiian cotton, that actually saved that industry when it was hybridized (bred into) commercial cottons. Why? Insects are not attracted to it in the same way. Like hula and surfing, ma‘o is a seemingly small Hawaiian contribution that has helped to shape the modern world.

Hawaiian CottonKou FlowerAwapuhi Shampoo GingerHalapepe
Hibiscussugar caneHawaiian poppy


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