by Michael Stein | Photography courtesy of Maui Nui Botanical Gardens | Illustrations by Robert Wagstaff
In the holds of the canoes that first touched Maui’s shores were 20 to 30 “canoe plants” that conveyed the entire world of the original Hawaiians: their nourishment, their handicrafts, their medicines, and the foundation of their life of the spirit.
It would probably have amazed an American pioneer, crossing the plains with his meager provisions, to know that a race of Polynesian seafarers in double-hulled canoes had once managed to carry with them not only food for a 3,000-mile journey, but for the rest of their lives in Hawai‘i, along with their medicine, clothing, handicrafts, and the essence of their religion.
Their entire culture came with them in the form of seeds, stalks, tubers, roots, and cuttings. The kanaka maoli (original people) mastered the uses of an enormous number of plants.
Some were considered so vital, so sacred, and so richly flexible in their applications that they became “canoe plants,” bearing the future existence of the people with them as surely as the men who paddled through the waves.
As the crew of the modern voyaging canoe Hokulea successfully demonstrated, the ancient Hawaiians wrapped this precious cargo in layers of moistened moss, then dry ti-leaf, kapa (bark cloth), or skin from the banana tree. The plants were hung in lauhala (pandanus leaf) casings from the roof of the canoe’s hut, or stowed in ipu (the gourd, itself a canoe plant) and survived a journey across open, storm-tossed seas.