Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Finally, a thorough tally of Hawaiian canoe plants, including pa'ihi and kamole.

 Which Hawaiian plants are canoe plants, the plants that Polynesian voyagers carried on their voyaging canoes to support new lives in new islands?

Some folks will say there were as few as 23. Others say as many as 32, Most are in between. Where’s the truth? Come on along for this investigation.

In most parts of the world, plants are conveniently divided into native and introduced. And among the natives, there are the endemics that are found nowhere else and the indigenous, which somehow got here without human assistance, but are also found in other parts of the world.

Canoe plant kukui (left), alongside hala, which might be but was already here. 
Jan TenBruggencate photo.

In Hawai’i, we had another classification: canoe plants or Polynesian introductions—the plants the Polynesian canoe voyagers carried with them to support their lives on newly found islands.

The late Lynton Dove White, in her book Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai’i, lists 24 canoe plants. 

Art Whistler has more.

“The farther into the Pacific from the center of dispersal (Western Polynesia), the fewer successfully introduced canoe plants there were (e.g., ca. 60 in Tonga, c. 27 in Hawai‘i). Only about six canoe plant species were successfully introduced to New Zealand by the Maoris, mainly because canoe plants are tropical, and did not survive or thrive in temperate New Zealand,” wrote ethnobotanist Art Whistler. He is the author of “Plants of the Canoe People.” 

They are probably both low in their counts.

There were certainly somewhere between two and three dozen of them. 

At a minimum, these: `ape elephant ear, `awa kava, ‘auhuhu wild indigo or fish poison plant,`awapuhi shampoo ginger, ipu Lagenaria gourd vine, kalo taro, kamani Alexandrian laurel, ki ti leaf, ko sugar cane, kukui candlenut, mai`a banana, niu coconut, noni Indian mulberry, `ohe bamboo, `ohi`a `ai mountain apple, `olena turmeric, pia arrowroot, `uala sweet potato, uhi yam, `ulu breadfruit, and wauke paper mulberry.

That’s 21.

Many think hau or sea hibiscus and milo or portia tree were likely canoe plants, but could also have already been on the Islands.

That’s 23

Hala or pandanus used to be on the canoe plant list, but then fossils of hala were found in rocks erupted 100,000 to 500,000 years ago, and later ancient pollen was found in sediments that predate human arrival in the island.

The orange-flowered Kou (Cordia subcordata) also used to be placed on the list, but again, ancient pollen showed there were forests of it already there to greet the first canoes.

That said, the quartet of hala, hau, milo and kou were such valuable plants in Hawaiian and the larger Polynesian culture that they might have been on the first arriving canoes as part of the Polynesian survival kit, even if they turned out to be already in the Islands.

They would make 25.

There are problems with the list we’ve made so far. It is as far as most tallies go, but it is incomplete. For example, it lists banana as mai’a, but there were at least two quite different species of mai’a, and it lists one but there were three species of yam. And there are other plants that are not on the most common lists at all.

The yams: not only the uhi or winged yam, but also the hoi or bitter yam and pi’a Hawai’i, or five-leaf yam, Dioscorea pentaphylla, which is different from the Polynesian arrowroot that is also known as pi’aTacca leontopetaloides.

There appear to have been not one but two bananas, the more common mai’a , but also the fe’i banana, he’iMusa troglodytarum.

The Bishop Museum’s Plants of Hawai'i program lists 32 canoe plants, some of which are so obscure they most people won’t know them. This Bishop Museum botany site seems to be the most thorough list out there, although (as I write this) it is missing the Hawaiian names of a couple of the less common species.

Plants of Hawai’i includes the popolo, or American nightshade, which clearly was an early arrival in the Islands, and is not commonly included in canoe plant lists.

Another canoe plant on its list is the Oxalis corniculata, yellow wood sorrel, has several Hawaiian names, ‘ihi ‘ai, ‘ihi ‘awa, ‘ihi maka ‘ula, ‘ihi mākole. It is edible, used medicinally for several ailments and made a dye.

Plants of Hawai’i cites two canoe plant species without Hawaiian names, although other sources do identify the Hawaiian names of those plants.

One is the Mexican primrose willow, Ludwigia octovalis, which other sources call water primrose, and in Hawaiian kamole or alohalua. It is said to be edible, but seems primarily to have been used medicinally, often in the form of a tea.

Another is pa’ihi, Polynesian cress, Rorippia sarmentosa. It is both edible and medicinal. Plants of Hawai’i lists this cress, as well as the primrose willow and wood sorrel, as possible accidental introductions—which suggests that perhaps seeds were on the canoes, but that they were not intended canoe plants.

The upshot is that while some folks will tell you there were precisely 23 or “more than 24” or 27 or exactly 30, or 32 canoe plants, nobody can be entirely sure. Here’s our comprehensive list—including the ones that might have been canoe plants but were also here already, and the ones that might have hitchhiked on canoes.

‘Ape, ‘auhuhu, ‘awa, ‘awapuhi, hala, hau, hoi, ‘ihi’ai, ipu, kalo, kamani, kamole, ki, ko, kou, kukui, mai’a, mai’a he’i, milo, niu, noni, ‘ohe, ‘ohi’a ‘ai, ‘olena, pa’ihi, pi’a Hawai’i, pi’a, popolo, ‘uala, uhi, ‘ulu, wauke.

And that’s 32 canoe plants.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2024

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