Exploring Hawaiian Life Through Canoe Plants

A New Place to Experience the Ancient Story of Canoe Plants in McBryde Garden

By Jon Letman, Editor

NTBG’s flagship McBryde Garden contains an interpretive collection that allows visitors to experience the plants of Hawaii in a new way. The Hawaiian Life Canoe Garden was designed as a showcase for plants the first Hawaiians introduced to the islands, Hawaiian Life creates a sense of place, helping visitors better understand the central role plants play in Hawaiian culture, while serving as a living classroom.

At the heart of the collection are more than two dozen species known as “canoe plants.” Staple crops such as kalo (taro), ulu (breadfruit), and uala (sweet potato) were introduced to Hawaii by the first voyagers to reach the islands.

Braving the open ocean in waa kaulua (double-hulled voyaging canoes), the first humans migrated in waves from the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, and other island groups over centuries, carrying plants essential to their survival and the perpetuation of their culture.

Navigating to Hawaii

Armed with extraordinary navigational skills, and carrying only the most important plants, animals (pigs, dogs, chickens), food, and water, those first wayfinders overcame extraordinary odds, crossing an ocean that was anything but pacific, to reach the world’s most isolated archipelago — a string of high volcanic islands where plants and animals found nowhere else had evolved in quiet isolation.

The roughly two dozen new plants those first navigators introduced to Hawaii are at the core of the story of NTBG’s Hawaiian Life. This redesigned space features new exhibits that are more interactive, trails that are more accessible, and plant collections presented in a more cohesive, narrative manner with specially designed signs, story panels, and breakout spaces along the trail to gather and share stories. From these overlooks, visitors can better observe their surroundings or watch demonstrations, when offered, on the hula mound, at the planting beds, or inside the hale (traditional thatched house).

Culture Cannot Survive Without Plants

Sabra Kauka, a respected kumu (teacher) and cultural practitioner, has taught students in McBryde Garden for many years. As an educator and advisor for the Canoe Garden, Sabra knows the important role the plants play in perpetuating cultural knowledge. “The culture cannot survive without the plants,” she says. “Each plant has a story to tell. Each was carefully chosen by my ancestors.”

Walking the new trail is like embarking on a journey that begins at an interpretive station where a wooden paddle sign and a canvas “sail” pulled taut between mast-like posts evoke the image of a voyaging canoe. The trail winds beneath a stand of hala (pandanus), passing overlooks of the Lawa‘i stream, leading to Hale Ho‘ona‘auao (literally: House of teaching). Surrounding planting beds are filled with awa (Piper methysticum), ape (Alocasia macrorrhiza), and the rarely seen auhuhu (Tephrosia purpurea), a plant used to temporarily stun and catch fish.

The construction of Hawaiian Life provided an opportunity to perpetuate the practice of building kalo loi (taro terraces) using lava rocks from the garden. The new loi function much as they did centuries ago, routing water to the taro in the terraces before flowing into the stream.

Star Compass

A central feature of the Hawaiian Life Canoe Garden is a sidereal star compass based on a design used by navigators, recreated with permission from renowned Polynesian navigator Nainoa Thompson. Measuring eight feet in diameter, the tile compass lies flat at ground level and displays the four cardinal directions: akau (north), hema (south), hikina (east), and komohana (west), and four quadrants named for the prevailing winds (Koolau, Malanai, Kona, and Hoolua).

The compass is further divided into 32 houses representing celestial spheres. Each house bears one of seven names: Haka, Na leo, Nalani, Nanu, Noio, Aina, and La, each separated by 11.25 ° for a total of 360°. At the center of the compass is the image of a soaring iwa — the pelagic frigate bird often seen soaring effortlessly above the seas.

While Nainoa’s star compass is a “mental construct for navigation” based on Micronesian traditional wisdom perpetuated by wayfinders, NTBG’s rendering, built with tiles encircled by concrete pavers, is a distinctive feature and an educational tool that conveys the importance of navigation in Hawaiian and other Pacific Island cultures.

Brian Yamamoto, Kaua‘i Community College professor of natural sciences and longtime NTBG partner, says Hawaiian Life is important because it’s one of the few places he can take his students to examine the full range of canoe plants in a single location. NTBG’s outdoor classroom, Yamamoto explains, allows students to have a more impactful and enjoyable experience by working directly with the plants.

As the Hawaiian Life Canoe Garden grows and matures, it will serve students, cultural practitioners, the broader community, and island visitors as a botanical sanctuary filled with tropical beauty, traditional wisdom, and inspiration, where one can come to better understand and appreciate Hawaiian culture and plants, feed the imagination, and nourish the soul.

The Hawaiian Life Canoe Garden was made possible with support from NTBG’s McBryde Garden Planning Committee, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Emerson and Peggy Knowles, and other generous donors.

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