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.


AWAPUHIAwapuhi Shampoo Ginger

Zingiber zerumbet, “shampoo ginger”

Hike Maui’s deep valleys in the late summer and you can’t help but see them, the plump ovoid bracts of this introduced ginger’s flowering stems. They peep at you from beneath long, dark-green glossy leaves, decorated all over with tiny white or yellow flowers. Snap off the stem and give the bract a squeeze. Clear, fragrant juice the consistency of warm honey will flood out. As a shampoo and body soap, awapuhi was adored, important enough to be brought along in the settlement canoes. (The plant originates in India, and gradually seduced its way to Polynesia.) Like all gingers, awapuhi’s roots, or rhizomes, are fragrant. Hawaiians didn’t employ it in cooking (though they did use juice from the rhizome to ease stomachaches). Instead, they dried and powdered the rhizome to scent kapa (barkcloth). Mmmm. Gingery bedding and clothes. And scent is powerful; how often have you been yanked sideways by a memory triggered by a smell? Hawaiians also used awapuhi and other scented plants ceremonially as a potent way to connect with the gods — as one cultural advisor put it, to “make the space appropriate for the akua [gods] to come.”

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