The relationships between people and the plants that surrounded them has always been an important one. Because indigenous cultures depended upon the plants around them for their very existence, they became expert in their uses. They learned which plants were good for food, for building materials, for textiles, for medicine. A comparison can be drawn between this collective traditional knowledge and today’s scientific disciplines of taxonomy, ecology, horticulture, and pharmacology. In the past researchers did not always regard as significant the knowledge indigenous people had about plants, or they were, at best, skeptical. Scientists and conservationists working in the tropics today recognize that valuable knowledge was being ignored, and, all too frequently, lost.
NTBG is committed to bridging the gap between contemporary science and traditional knowledge through its research, conservation, and education programs. Alongside the discoveries that are being made using modern scientific techniques such as electron microscopy and in vitro propagation, ethnobotanical studies are revealing not only how indigenous cultures used plants, but why certain plants were used for particular purposes, whether for subsistence or for rituals. We are also learning about indigenous land and resource management practices that preserved the plants and their habitats, and about the values that guided them. With this understanding comes a deep respect for these ancient cultures.
Caring for the Land
The importance of stewardship of the environment is deeply rooted in many indigenous cultures. This resulted in the use of sound conservation practices embedded in a holistic approach to using their land, water, plant and animal resources in ways that led to sustainability. For example, the ancient Hawaiians practiced good resource management by employing the ahupua‘a system. This approach recognized the interconnection between the mountains and the ocean and the roles that fresh water played in linking the two. By operating within the ahupua`a system, the Hawaiians were able to maintain the integrity of their natural resources.
Today the NTBG, recognizing the wisdom of the ahupua‘a system of resource management, bases its conservation efforts on its principles. Restoration projects at Limahuli Garden and Preserve, as well as those in the Lāwa‘i Valley, employ concepts learned from cultural practices of ahupua‘a. A key consideration is maintaining the integrity of the watersheds by restoring endemic plant habitats and populations.
Ethnobotanical studies of indigenous cultural practices and traditional knowledge about plants extend beyond the boundaries of our gardens. Researchers from the Breadfruit Institute have visited nearly 50 islands in the Pacific, documenting traditional uses and cultural practices. Students learn about the role of plants in indigenous societies. Under the Indigenous Communities Mapping Initiative, NTBG is documenting the way native Hawaiians viewed and cared for the natural world in which they lived.
Cultural and Historical Treasures in the Gardens
NTBG’s gardens are rich in culture and history, which provide opportunities not only for scientists to learn about traditional knowledge, but also to share that knowledge through education programs. Teaching gardens, called “Canoe Gardens,” have been created in the McBryde Garden and Limahuli Garden on Kaua‘i, and at Kahanu Garden on Maui. These gardens contain the plants that are believed to have been brought to Hawai‘i by the migrating Polynesians who settled the islands. Cultural knowledge is perpetuated both by Garden staff and local indigenous practitioners who show students traditional skills, such as how to extract a shampoo from ‘awapuhi (Zingiber zerumbet, a member of the Ginger family) or how to harvest and pound wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera, of the Mulberry family) into a fabric.
Archaeologists believe that the valley where Limahuli Garden and Preserve is located today was one of the first areas in Hawai‘i to be settled, perhaps in 200-300 A.D. There lo`i kalo (taro terraces) have been restored and planted with a number of traditional taro varieties. Elsewhere in the garden there are archaeological remnants that are being studied to learn more about how the early Hawaiians may have lived in this valley.
Pi‘ilanihale at Kahanu Garden (a heiau - an enormous lava-rock platform used for ceremonial or religious purposes) has been dated to the 13th century. It has been painstakingly restored, and research continues in an effort to learn about its origins and early uses. Pi‘ilanihale is being managed using traditional cultural knowledge and practices.
Limahuli Garden and Preserve and Kahanu Garden are excellent examples of how culture and botany are connected. NTBG is ensuring that both its cultural and botanical resources are appropriately developed.
Integral to studying traditional knowledge and culture is the accurate understanding and use of indigenous languages. You may have noticed the diacritical marks used in this website. These marks facilitate correct pronunciation, but they also distinguish words that are otherwise spelled in the same way. For example, in Hawaiian the word “pi‘a” refers to a yam, while “pia” is an arrowroot plant. For ethnobotanical researchers, mastery and correct use of native languages may be the only way to ensure the accuracy of the information they are gathering.
NTBG’s mission statement includes a commitment to “perpetuating cultural knowledge of tropical regions.” In all of the programs at the NTBG we seek to find synergies between what we learn from the traditional knowledge from the past and the research findings of the present. Our goal is to share this wealth of experience with the world today and record it for the generations of tomorrow.