“The Polynesian voyages are probably the most epic journeys ever undertaken by man,” says Mike DeMotta, the assistant director of horticulture at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. We’re in Kauai, and he says this by way of introducing Ryan and I to the two dozen or so “canoe plants” brought to Hawaii — on 100-foot-long double-hull canoes — over 1,000 years ago.
“As experienced travelers,” Mike says, “they knew they couldn’t depend on what they would find on any island they’d get to, so they always brought their own stuff. Everything they brought for the most part originates in Southeast Asia somewhere.”
“Their own stuff” included food and medicine in the form of bananas, coconuts, taro, sugarcane and ginger — flora so closely tied to Hawaiian culture that many people assume they’re native.
Guided by the stars and “how the ocean reacted to landmasses, they were able to find islands in the distance,” Mike says. That’s how the master seafarers of Polynesia explored approximately 16 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean: from New Zealand in the southwest to Hawaii in the north, to Easter Island in the southeast — also known as the Polynesian Triangle. The original Hawaiians are believed to have sailed there from the Marquesas Islands some 2,000 miles away.
Perhaps in as little as 30 days!
Leaving one paradise to find another, and with a “botanical tool kit” to boot. We think we like this idea, but also wonder…why?
“Why do people go anywhere?” says Mike. “Overpopulation and political, religious differences. The Marquesas Islands are beautiful, but they’re very small and mountainous. Every time the population grew, it was like, ‘Leave or die.’ ”
Needless to say, our trip to the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai last December was an enlightening one, rich in both hort and history. We met Mike at the Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden in the Lawai Valley on the south shore, where he showed us the plants of ancient Hawaii, plus muggy tangles of monsteras, palms and philodendrons that ushered us right up to a waterfall.
And then there’s the garden’s collection of native Hawaiian plants, which are particularly close to Mike’s heart — from rugged lobelias that grow out of rocks to a hibiscus family member known for draping cliffs with radiant yellow flowers.
Explore these plants — many of which came to Kauai either by “wind, wing or wave” — with us, below!
A millennium ago, the migrating Polynesians “picked up plants that were very useful,” Mike says. “Coconuts, for example: that was their main source for water, which was in its own self-contained sterile container. You could eat the meat, use the shells for tools.”
About the bananas, Mike says, “The varieties that we grow today are probably nothing like what they arrived with.” Because banana plants are monocarpic, flowering and fruiting once before dying, the ancient Hawaiians used the entire plant while cooking the fruits in an imu, or underground oven. “The leaves are used as a covering, [and] the stump is full of water, so you put the crushed stump in, and it causes it to steam.”
(The garden’s own imu gets fired up for company potlucks.)
And then there’s the taro, an important staple food believed to be the elder brother of the Hawaiians. Taro, Mike says, is “eaten by all Polynesians except probably New Zealanders, the Maori, because it’s too cold down there.”
The starchy plant developed a particular importance with the Hawaiians; to survive their voyages, “the Hawaiians would mash the taro [bulb] into a mash called poi, which keeps for longer than [raw or cooked] taro will,” Mike explains. “By changing the consistency to something like a mashed potato, it’s edible and maintains nutritional value for weeks and weeks. They depended on it to sustain them on these long journeys in the South Pacific.”
Ancient tradition dictates that one should not turn one’s back to the taro, and that it should only be planted and harvested during certain phases of the moon.
Other canoe plants include sweet potato (sourced by the ancient Polynesians, amazingly, from South America somehow), kukui (used for fuel, food and construction), breadfruit, awapuhi ginger (which provided medicine, shampoo and flavoring), noni fruit, kava (roots can be brewed into a sedative drink), ti (used for medicine, food packaging, even raincoats) and gourds for decoration and containers. Sources place the total number between 24 and 30 plants in total.
NTBG is a non-profit that relies on the support of plant lovers, and is dedicated to discovering, saving, and studying the world’s tropical plants, and to sharing these breakthroughs with the public. Its other locations include Limahuli Garden on Kauai’s north shore, Kahanu Garden on Maui, and the Kampong in Coconut Grove, Florida. That’s 2,000 acres of gardens and preserves in total!
In addition to our canoe plant exploration, we took a jaunt into the wildly tropical waterfall area of NTGB’s Allerton Garden…
At his own house on the west side, Mike grows only native plants; his expertise in the area was what originally brought NTBG to his door. We gotta say, his passion is contagious.
“People think native plants don’t look nice or they’re hard to grow,” Mike says. “It’s unfounded because they’re native, they evolved here. You have to till, you have to make the soil better. You can’t put a native plant in the middle of a big red-dirt former sugarcane field and expect it to thrive. You have to create the community of plants it’s supposed to be in — then they thrive.”
With just a few minutes left until closing time, Ryan and I went deeper into McBryde Garden, which, in addition to indigenous species, features plants from all over the tropics.