Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photography by Cecilia Fernandez Romero
As you cruise along the Hana Highway, you might notice tangled thickets worthy of Brothers Grimm fairy tales crowding the road. Long, entwined branches darken the paths leading to waterfalls. The uppermost branches reach thirty feet toward the sky, dangling yellow blossoms with magenta hearts.
For the botanically inclined, those flowers are a tipoff—this marvelous, serpentine tree belongs to the hibiscus family. Hibiscus tiliaceus, known as hau in Hawai‘i, is one of around thirty canoe plants that the Polynesians packed into their voyaging canoes before setting sail to explore the Pacific. The Islands’ first inhabitants found it highly useful.
Braided cordage made from hau bark was a staple in old Hawai‘i, used to craft everything from sandals and basket handles to shark snares. Hau wood is buoyant, and seafarers sought out large branches to carve into canoe ama (outriggers) and fishing-tackle boxes. Weavers favored slender branches with few knots, which they stripped and soaked in fresh water for a week or more. Thus softened, the porous inner flesh produces golden, nearly translucent ribbons that are especially lovely when gathered into full hula skirts.
Today hau is a landscaping element found islandwide, its octopus-like tendencies usually tamed by careful pruning. Wai‘anapanapa State Park is among the best places to view the tree in its full glory. Stone steps lead to a brackish pool beneath a living archway of hau. At the short trail’s crest, you can gaze across the flowered treetops to the black-sand beach.
Hau blooms year-round, though its crepelike blossoms last for a single day. As the sun progresses across the sky, the light yellow petals darken to orange, then to reddish-brown, and finally fall from the tree.