Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i
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`Ape - `Awa -`Awapuhi -Hau -Ipu -Kalo -Kamani -Ki -Ko -Kou -Kukui -Mai`a
Milo -Niu -Noni -`Ohe -`Ohi`a `Ai -`Olena -Olona -Pia -`Uala -Uhi -`Ulu -Wauke
In the old days this plant was so highly valued that permission to cut it was required of the village chief. Today it is often called "hau bush" and is termed an invasive plant, as it has taken over some areas where acres are covered high with hau, at the same time creating windbreaks and stabilizing the soil.
Seeds and cuttings of hau were brought by early Polynesian voyagers to Hawai`i Nei, and planted by the settlers to yield a light-weight tough white wood with a brown heart. Hau is found and used throughout tropical and subtropical Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia and is held in high regard for its usefulness to the traditional life of oceanic people.
Hibiscus tiliaceus is the scientific name of hau. The naturally curved branches of this plant's softwood are used to make canoe outriggers. The three parts are the niako, the two booms, and the float, ama. To get the proper shapes, the younger branches were sometimes trained into arches or shaped in an imu, underground oven. The bark was stripped from the branches which were then soaked for a few weeks in ocean water. This treatment would discourage insects and rot. Wiliwili or `ohi`a lehua were also used for the ama. These two woods are buoyant and lightweight as is hau, but they are stronger and better suited for larger canoes.
Traditionally, hau branches were piled near the shoreline to indicate fishing was kapu, because spawning was occurring in that area.
Cork-like hau wood pieces were used as floats on fishnets. The soft wood was also helpful in making fires. A pointed piece of hau was rubbed in a groove of a harder wood, such as kukui. The dust particles of hau that rubbed apart would smolder as the rubbing increased. Then small pieces of coconut fiber or bits of tapa bark cloth were ignited from the hau, and the fire was next put to grasses, sticks and finally to wood.
Adze handles were most often made of hau, as were light-weight practice spears, massage sticks, brooms, and the cross-beams for kites.
Hau cordage, called `ili hau, provided tying material used daily. The cordage is made by cutting off stems and younger smooth branches, making a slit lengthwise and removing the bark with the hands. The bark strips are then soaked. When the outer bark is slipped off, remaining are cream-colored smooth fibers for braiding and twisting into cordage. For some uses the outer bark isn't removed, eventually falling off with use. Hau cordage provided ropes for hauling and many other needs: slings; canoe lashing; strings for bows; net bags; carrying handles for water-gourds; fasteners for lauhala baskets; shark nooses; strands for lei making; strainers for coconut cream and `awa drinks; sewing material to piece together tapa cloth for clothing and bedding; a form of tapa itself; hula skirts of hau bark; sandals; and cord for snapping dyes into line designs onto tapa cloth.
Hau grows well near the ocean, streams, and in moist sloping areas up to the 2000 foot elevation. This shrub spreads to form a creeping jungle of interwoven, curved and twisted springy arching branches. Sometimes trunks up to 12 feet long recline to form roots where they touch the ground. These become impenetrable places.
The leaves are heart-shaped and round, from 2 to 12 inches in diameter. They are leathery, with a smooth surface, while the underside is velvety and consists of matted white hairs. Sometimes the leaf edges are scalloped, but usually not.
Hau is a true hibiscus, whose flowers have five crepe-like petals with a central column. The 2-3 inch long bright yellow cup-shaped flowers have reddish centers, and form at the ends of the branches. As the day goes by, the flower changes color to orange and then to reddish-brown, before it falls off the plant, usually by the next morning. The inch long dry downy brown fruiting capsule contains 5 valves, each with 3 smooth seeds.
In home gardens, hau is propagated from cuttings, and the trunks can be trained to create a garden shelter or arbor called a lanai hau. This plant is also grown as a natural fence barrier.
A slimy juicy sap found in the dome of the flowerbud and in the bark was used as a mild laxative. For babies and young children, the flowerbuds were used; and, for adults and older children, the small white dome-shaped bump inside the bottom of the flower petals was used. The buds were also chewed and eaten for dry-throat. Slime from soaking the bark of the stems was medicine for congested chests. The lubricant quality of the inner bark was of value as an enema or could assist in the passage of a baby at childbirth.
One Hawai`i legend says that hau is a sister of the goddess Hina, changed into a tree. The people of Tahiti say hau is the grandchild of heaven and earth. Some people equate the brief span of the hau flower as representative of the transitory nature of human life.
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