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.



Cordia subcordata, a borage

Based on fossilized pollen evidence, botanists determined that kou is a native  Hawaiian plant. The modern world overlooked this tree, but the Hawaiian world treasured it. It was in a celebrated kou grove in Lahaina that the ali‘i (chieftess) Ka‘ahumanu gave permission to deliver the first Christian sermon in Hawai‘i, but today very few kou trees remain. I find them standing lonely and proud around former village sites on Maui, generally along the coast. There is something about the reddish-orange hue of the flowers that speaks to my heart — flowers that were prized in lei. One ‘ōlelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverb) tells of a rude young chieftess who repeatedly demanded a lei kou from an old woman whom she misjudged to be a nobody. The crone was, in fact, a sorceress who called sharks down upon the imperious young woman as she reclined in a tide pool.

Kou is best known for the beauty of its wood, with fine cream and caramel graining that swirls and pools. Beautiful and useful, kou wood was used to carve bowls and calabashes, which were prized because the essence and flavor of the wood did not taint the food held within. Carvers loved how easily it was worked. Parents would thoughtfully plant kou when children were born so that those children and then grandchildren would one day have the wood for carving. Kou seems to own the warm tones of the brown and red spectrum, and a dye extracted from carefully aged leaves was used to stain kapa. Fishing lines, like all cordage of that time, were made of organic fibers. Salt water was tough on these lines, but applying a kou dye strengthened and protected them.

And as long as they don’t go around demanding lei of old women, fishermen should be safe from sharks.

Hawaiian CottonKou FlowerAwapuhi Shampoo GingerHalapepe
Hibiscussugar caneHawaiian poppy



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