Since the beginning of humankind, plants have been used to nourish and heal.  Additionally, many plants are used for ceremonies of gratitude and prayer that honor gods, people, and places. 

Plants affect us all deeply. It can be the majesty of a 2,000-year-old tree or vast meadows of waving grasses. They move us and stir us in ways that are emotional and spiritual. 

Plants offer us easy access to the miracle of life right outside our door. We  breathe in their oxygen, admire their beauty, and feel the wonder of our simple existence. 

As we have learned in our Canoe Plant Blog Series…

…the Polynesians were very aware of the importance of plants and brought over 24 plants on the long voyage to their new home in Hawai’i. Each one took up precious space in the canoe, alongside other items crucial for their future life. 

Edible, Useful, Ceremonial, and Medicinal Canoe Plants 

Made the Long Journey from Polynesia

We began our sojourn in the story of Canoe Plants, learning about 3 that are edible.  We then talked about three plants that have a multitude of purposes.

As we have said, all Canoe Plants cross over into several categories.  Although we chat today about plants used for ceremony and healing, you will see how each plant has many benefits.

Here are 3 of the essential plants used for Ceremony and Healing
‘Olena – Magic and Healing Powers #1

‘Olena has been used for culinary and medical purposes since man has cultivated the earth, over 4000 years. It is also known as turmeric or curcuma and is a cousin to ginger.

Although we call ginger and turmeric a root, it is actually called a rhizome.  This part of the plant grows horizontally and produces small shoots for self-propagation.

Because of its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties, the value of ‘olena has increased through the years.

Some healing powers of ‘Olena:

  • Blood purifier
  • Ear and nasal infections
  • Detoxification of the liver and colon and, as a result, of the skin
  • Bursitis, tendonitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammation 
  • Clearing of lungs
  • Overall health
  • Strong deep yellow and orange color of dye used for kapa*.

Hawaiians considered ‘olena to have mana (spiritual power). When used for purification and cleansing, a combination of extracted juice from the rhizome mixed with sea salt and water was used. A Ki leaf was dipped into the mixture and sprinkled on places, people, or things that needed to be cleansed of negativity.

Noni – Magic and Healing Powers #2

Noni is not quite as old as ‘olena.  In fact, it’s a youngster and has only been used for 2000 years. Other names it goes by are Indian Mulberry and Morinda.

It emerged in the 21st century as a health trend and has similar overall healing effects as ‘olena. 

Noni has been around in skin-care products and capsules, but we have mostly heard of it as noni juice. It is one of those things that if you taste it, its unusual flavor makes you feel like “this HAS to be good for me!”.

Noni will bear fruit and flowers all year long, which makes it a primary candidate for marketing.

Historically, all parts of the plant were used as medicines or dyes and often mixed with other herbs. In modern times, the ripe fruit has been the primary ingredient in health products used for a variety of chronic diseases, including cancer.

Some of the magic of Noni:

  • Tonic for general health
  • Diabetes, heart troubles, and high blood pressure
  • Blood purifier and immune system enhancement 
  • Poultice for wounds
  • High antioxidant properties
  • Red and yellow pigments of dye used for kapa
‘Awa – Be Grateful, Be Well and Relax 
When ‘awa cups are filled, a prayer of gratitude is offered.

‘Olelo No’eau for ‘Awa 

(Hawaiian Proverb)

E Hanai ‘awa a ikaika ka makani.

Feed with ‘awa so that the spirit may gain strength.

One offers ‘awa and prayers to the dead so the their spirit may grow strong and be a source of help to the family

In days gone by, it is said that only the Ali’i* and Kahuna* could partake of ‘awa (pronounced AH-wah) in ceremonial practices. Certain cups and bowls made from coconut shells were reserved for this holy ceremony.  The plant has heart-shaped velvety leaves. Like many Canoe Plants, all parts of the plant are used.

An ‘awa ceremony was held before the sometimes stressful meetings that would be held to review issues in the village.  This custom assisted in relaxing participants and opening up communication with others. This brought the leaders into harmony and goodwill as they made their important decisions together.

In recent times, ‘awa can be used by all the people. 

As a social tradition and offering of gratitude, the ‘awa ceremony is used before special events — gatherings such as a canoe race, blessing, or offering of gratitude.

Labeled as mildly intoxicating and medicinal, here are some uses of ‘awa:

  • Sedative to relax muscles and promote sleep
  • Teething relief and help with weaning
  • Headaches
  • Respiratory relief
  • Cold, chills, fever
  • Diabetes
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Rheumatism
  • Indigo Blue dye used for kapa
‘Awa, means bitter. And bitter it is.  

As we look at these 3 primarily medicinal canoe plants, we can be sure that – 

If it is Bitter, it Must Be Healthy!

‘Olena, Noni, and ‘Awa are all bitter plants.  Sometimes, those who have not acquired the taste will call it horrid, disgusting, or pilau*

When studying Hawaiian Ethnobotany, there are hundreds of useful, edible, medicinal, and ceremonial plants that are not Canoe Plants.  They were cultivated or brought to Hawai’i at a later date or were already here when the early settlers arrived.

No one knows just how many voyages were made in the settling of the Hawaiian Islands. 

We know from studies that at least 24 varieties Canoe Plants did not originate here, but were transported in the first voyages. 

Like many civilizations flourishing before historical records, the Hawaiians were good at using all their resources, especially their plants and animals. 

There was zero waste. 

From the wide variety of some individual native plants, we can assume that a lot of cross- pollination has happened over the years. 

It’s a beautiful mystery that surrounds us to this day as we look around at the forests, alpine meadows, even yards, and landscaped areas. We are reminded of people with the dream of living in a new land, carefully bringing important plants and tools to create their vision of a new life.

Writing and Graphic Design by Sugandha Ferro Black

GLOSSARY* of Hawaiian Words

Ali’i – Nobility of the Hawaiian Islands

Kahuna – a wise person or shaman

Kapa – Cloth pounded from the wauke plant

Pilau – rotten or stinky


*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.