Pua ‘Ōlena

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Story by Shannon Wianecki

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At this year’s Merrie Monarch hula competition, the celebrated Yap family wore eye-catching outfits made of kapa (barkcloth) dyed brilliant yellow. The striking costumes didn’t just look good—they smelled good, too. As the performers strode onstage, a spicy, telltale perfume followed them: ‘ōlena, turmeric’s Hawaiian name.

Turmeric is prized around the world for its yellow color, bold flavor, and medicinal properties. When Polynesian voyagers first sailed to Hawai‘i, they brought the pungent herb with them. Hawaiian healers are said to have mashed ‘ōlena roots into juice as a remedy for earaches, sinus infections, and other ailments. Priests used ‘ōlena-laced seawater in purification rituals. Kapa makers, who perfected the art of decorating barkcloth with natural dyes over many centuries, used thumb-sized turmeric roots to produce a range of yellows from bright canary to deep mustard.

The tradition continues. Hula dancer and fashion designer Manaola Yap colored his Merrie Monarch costume with ‘ōlena he grew at home. It’s a tricky garden plant that loses its leaves and goes dormant over the winter. New leaves emerge in spring, followed by a late-summer flower stalk. While turmeric’s roots are showy and stain the fingers, the plant’s bloom is comparatively shy. A stalk of pale, almost translucent green-and-white petals grows close to the ground, tucked amidst the plant’s leaves. Yap appreciates the symbolism. “It represents the hidden beauty that you only see when the wind blows,” he says. His family popularized a song that praises the cryptic flower—a metaphor for a reserved but precious person.

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