Plants make life possible on Earth. 

They capture the sun’s energy and transform it, like a giant Photovoltaic Solar Panel, into a battery of stored energy we call food. We eat the food and convert it back into energy – to work, play, move, and even to think and feel. 

Every culture has its favorite foods. Therefore, their favorite plants which they cultivate and gather. Of course, plants are needed for much more than just food. They are used for building,  fuel, clothing, and a multitude of essential functions. Some are just for delight, like beautiful flowers with delightful fragrances or plants with cultural or spiritual value. And the list goes on.

Canoe Plants are the foundation plants that came to Hawai’i to sustain and nourish the first island settlers. They occupied precious space on the first canoes. Additionally, particular animals were chosen to help establish in their new home. These plants and animals were used for survival along the way, for cultural reasons, and for propagation and cultivation by their future generations.


…people courageous enough to load up their hand carved wa’a kaulua (double-hulled wooden canoes) with plants, animals, and people and set sail into the unknown? For a voyage of at least 2,400 miles.

Using their skills, the night sky, faith in their Gods, plus a dream to guide them, they were able to find their way to the mountainous land of rainbows, the Hawaiian Islands.

There are over 24 Canoe Plants

Hawaiians believe in Kinolau* when Akua (a God) physically manifests in the form of a plant or animal.  Many Canoe Plants are associated with their own specific Kinolau. These Kinolau give Hawaiians sustenance, building materials, and ceremonial objects.

Canoe Plants included: 

Edible Plants, Helpful Plants and Ceremonial Plants

Today, we will explore 3 crucial edible plants.

Keep in mind that many canoe plants cross over into more than one category.  Although we chat today about edible plants, you will see how each plant has many important uses.

To honor the highest of high, we start with the Kalo plant.

Traditionally, Kalo is most well known for Poi. The kalo korm is pounded to create poi.  The ‘ohana* ritual is maintained by passing around the ‘umeke* filled with poi.  A ceremony that brings people together and enhances the gratitude of the ‘aumakua*

We spoke of using an ‘umeke earlier in our blog on the ritual of  Ho’oponopono.

Cultivated as a staple and staff of life from ancient times, there were 300 varieties of Kalo. Today, there are 87 of those varieties which we can still recognize.

Kalo can be grown in small water filled ponds which are called lo’i*. These shallow ponds are similar in some ways to rice paddies. In addition to wetland kalo, there are also quite a few dry land varieties.

The whole plant is edible and delicious. The small shoots or suckers coming off the main plant are called huli and are separated and planted during the propagation of new lo’i.

The leaves are cooked well and can remind us of cooked spinach or beet greens. They contain healthy amounts of vitamins A, B and C, calcium, iron, and riboflavin.

The korm can be baked, boiled, or roasted.  Our favorite way to eat the korm is smothered in coconut cream.

  1 – Ready to cook       2 – The korm       3 –  Poi

Some medicinal uses of Kalo:

  • Poi can be used for settling the stomach
  • The stem can be rubbed on an insect bite or utilized to stop surface bleeding
  • A poultice of the leaf is used for swelling from an injury or infections when mixed with Hawaiian Salt
  • Rich, black mud from the lo’i was used as a black dye for lauhala* or kapa* cloth

Kāne is the Kinolau of Kalo

The God Kāne plays a significant role in everyday life of Hawai’i and it’s people.  Kāne is paired with the forces of nature that give life. He physically manifests as the sunlight and the freshwater. And, as the kalo, one of the main staple foods of the Hawaiian people.

‘Uala – The versatile Sweet Potato –  a natural Power Bar

At one time there were over 200 varieties of ‘uala grown in Hawai’i

The cultivation of ‘uala was one of the only agricultural practices shared by both men and women.

It can grow from sea level to 5000 feet up the mountain.  This is one reason why there were so many varieties in the past. It adapted to a huge range of microclimates in the islands.

1-Molokai & Okinawan purple,  2-Freshly picked,  3-Mashed purple,  4-Roasted yellow

‘Uala is part of the Morning Glory family with lovely purple flowers and thick growth. Some people prefer ‘uala as an attractive ground cover. It can also be used to control soil erosion as it grows well on a steep slope. Its dense root structure does a great job of keeping the soil in place.

A few of the many uses of ‘uala:

  • A favorite food to bake, steam, boil, roast or mash
  • Milky sap from leaves and stems used as a tonic to ease pregnancy and induce lactation
  • Helps with asthma
  • Mixed with water and fermented to make a sweet potato beer called ‘uala ‘awa’awa
  • Leaves are steamed, boiled or baked
  • Dried leaves were used under sleeping mats for more padding

Lono is the Kinolau of ‘Uala

In the Hawaiian religion, the god Lono is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music and peace. One of his several physical manifestations is the essential ‘uala plant. One Hawaiian story of Lono, says he descended to Earth on a rainbow to marry the Goddess of Hula, Laka.

Mai’a – Banana – sweet and full of energy

At one time, there were more than 50 varieties of mai’a.  

The descendants of the original mai’a plants are still found growing in the wild. They grow in protected areas, deep water-way gulches and remote mountain slopes.

Mai’a grow and ripen all year, so they have always been a big part of the diet and lifestyle for Hawai’i. Their large red flower pushes out of the top of the plant in a stalk which curves towards the earth, leaving a trail of green, turning yellow, bananas in its wake.

Although we call the plant a banana tree, it is not technically a tree.  It is actually a gigantic herb and part of the grass family, like wheat, rye and barley.

Besides serving as nutritious and delicious food, every part of this plant is useful:

  • The leaves can be used for:
    • Roof for the hale*
    • Bowl covers
    • Umbrellas and rain hats
    • Table cloths and temporary sitting mats
    • Cattle feed
    • Covering for the imu (earth oven) to hold in the heat
    • Leaf buds as a vegetable 
  • Trunks can be used for:
    • Added to imu for moisture
    • As a roller to move a canoe from shore to sea
    • Dried, scraped, and used to string lei or make cloth

Mai’a also has medicinal uses.  One of the primary uses is as a poultice for wounds using the skins of the banana. There are antibiotic properties in the peels effective against bacteria.

One of the best uses of mai’a, is that it teaches us patience.  They grow and ripen slowly.

Kanaloa is the kinolau of Mai’a

Kanaloa is the god of healing. He is also associated with the ocean and long distance voyaging.  He is a companion of the God of Kāne. And one of his physical manifestations is in the mai’a plant.

 Plants to Build A New Nation

Planning a double-hulled canoe voyage of thousands of unknown miles, to land only seen in dreams, requires careful preparation. 

Each plant chosen for the voyage must serve multiple purposes – do its part. The leaves, flowers, fruit, wood, fibers – everything must be useful.

That is why the story of the Canoe Plants is so fascinating. Which plants did those ingenious original Hawaiian settlers choose and why? 

Please join us in this series of blogs talking about many different Canoe Plants. What they were, and the many ways they were important to the first Hawaiians. 

Plants like the Coconut or the Breadfruit… oh, we are jumping ahead! See you next week for more on the intriguing original plants carried here in the long distance ocean-faring canoes.

PS By the way, when you go on the Road to Hana, you will be introduced to many of these plants.

Writing and Graphic Design by Sugandha Ferro Black

GLOSSARY* of Hawaiian Words

Aumakua – family god or ancestor

Hale – House or building

Kapa – cloth pounded from wauke, aka: Tapa

Kinolau – literally, many forms

Lauhala – A plant used to weave mats and other useful objects such as hats, boxes, wallets

‘Umeke – calabash or bowl that supplies comfort to all

*Please keep in mind that all Hawaiian Words have many meanings. The meanings we share here are the specific translations for the words as they pertain to this particular blog’s subject matter.