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
`Ohe is said to be one of the "canoe plants" brought to Hawai`i Nei by early Polynesian settlers in their oceanic navigation. This plant may have originated in India or Java.
There are two types of `Ohe or "Hawaiian Bamboo". One is Schizostachyum glaucifolium and the other is a green Bambusa vulgaris. Both are clumping bamboos.
(1) Bambusa vulgaris, the most familiar, was the larger of the two and is a timber bamboo that grows to 50 ft. and larger. B. vulgaris has the special property of not going into flower en mass but rather individual clumps flower and die. Early Polynesian settlers likely were well aware of this and as they had been used for water containers they were probably also aware of being able to start culm sections growing - especially if they were filling them with water and keeping them in shade. B. vulgaris has thick culm walls highly prized by the Powder Post Beetle, and it will often attack it immediately after the harvest while it is still green. It is not known to set seed and is easily propagated by culm starts and rhizome sections.
(2) Schizostachyum glaucifolium - (3 in. x 40 ft.) another clumper, although smaller, is reported to set viable seed every 30 years or so. When you see a wild grove of this bamboo it appears to be a runner, as it has reseeded itself in such a way that it looks as if it has spread by running. S. glaucifolium is a very unusual bamboo having extremely thin walls, and long internodes. The culms are straight and besides water containers it has been used for a variety of musical instruments including nose flutes and stamping drums, to name a few. It is lightweight and strong, as stamping drums take a pounding. It can be started from culm starts so perhaps this was the method of propagation, but seed may have been available also. It, too, is susceptible to Powder Post Beetle attack. Most probably neither of these two early bamboo were used for home construction due to the beetle problem.
Most bamboo flower, but only once in 60-120 years, with large heads much like those of sugar cane. After blooming, all of the bamboo plants of the same species die back. This happens worldwide at the same time! Quite a remarkable feat, right in there with the similar global songs of the Humpback whales. Overall, there are more than 1000 kinds of bamboo, all of them relatives of the sugar cane and of corn.
This vigorous and fertile plant flourishes in warm moist forests. Growing to more than 50 feet high, some bamboo can reach 100 feet in height, growing up to 18 inches a day. The stems have hollow walls with internodes, thick hard nodes joining them. The beauty and purity of line is very pleasing to see.
Bamboo grows in clumps of culms called sympodial, the term for tropical bamboo that grows directly from the parent, where the culm and rhizome are one. Other kinds of bamboo have a single free-standing culm and are called monopodial, which means they grow out of a rhizome that travels fast and far underground.
Valuable in the control of soil erosion, bamboo can be propagated from young rhizomes or from cuttings. The plant needs rich moist soil, full sun and nitrogen.
The leaves of `ohe are long, flat, thin and pointed, with rough undersides that can cut. They are different lengths, depending upon the variety, the largest being about 14 inches long by 2 inches wide. Most varieties shed their leaves yearly, growing new ones that appear immediately.
Bamboo wood has silica in its cell walls and is hard, straight, strong, flexible, light and easily split.
The Japanese name for bamboo is take, while the Chinese call it chu.
Upon Maui's Haleakala's slopes above Keanae in an area called Waikamoi, it is said that the Polynesian goddess Hina planted a grove of `ohe brought from Tahiti.
Bamboo's usefulness takes many forms. People of ancient Hawai`i used `ohe to kindle fires, blowing air through hollow tubes onto the embers. This tool was called `ohe puhi ahi.
To irrigate their crops, kanaka would cut the `ohe in half lengthwise, then cut out the middle of the node walls, allowing water to flow down these irrigation troughs from the stream into the different levels of the taro pond fields.
A traditional knife for cutting the umbilical cord of a newborn was fashioned of bamboo, as were skewers to string kukui nuts for candles, lama or kali kukui.
In the tapa cloth-making process, women used lapa, bamboo sticks, to apply dye. Also, `ohe sticks were cut out to create designs that were then stamped with dye into intricate geometric patterns on the kapa. The stamps of bamboo were called `ohe kapala.
The `ohe stem is a valuable plant for hula accompaniment. A three-holed nose flute, `ohe hano ihu, is made from the hollow stem of the thin-walled bamboo, as well as percussion instruments, including the pu`ili, fringed split bamboo tubes about two feet long that rattle when hit. Other sounds can emanate from the `ohe ka `eke`eke, tubes of the thick-walled bamboo, with closed nodes on the bottom end. These are alternately struck on the ground to make tones. Another instrument using bamboo is the `ohe kani, somewhat like a Jew's harp.
Lengths of `ohe with closed ends can be used as a water carrier. Surely, these vessels of water would have been invaluable on ocean voyages. Along with the gourd, ipu, the need for water vessels was well met. Other uses for the bamboo stems are for building, posts, bridges, vessels, gutters, floats, hives, canes, flutes, masts, furniture, utensils, agricultural tools, ladders, ornaments, toys and fishing poles. If the bamboo is dried correctly, the esthetic smooth beauty of bamboo stalks can be maintained for years. Otherwise, rot and mildew can occur.
Split bamboo can be made into mats, hats, screens, baskets, fans, umbrellas, brushes, paper, ropes, roofing tiles, wall mats, or as a part of the sleds of old Hawai`i, called holua.
As food, the young shoots are eaten, as are seeds of some varieties.
`Ohe is said to be the kinolau, body form, of the Polynesian creator god Kane, along with kalo/taro and ko/sugar cane.
For more information on the many incredible values and uses of bamboo, visit the following related web sites:
Bamboo Societies, Networks, and Educational Pages:
Commercial Bamboo Nursery Pages:
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