Polynesian culture celebrated in our Hawaiian landscapes

  • The beautiful ohia tree is one of the many native trees to enjoy in your Hawaiian garden. The lehua flower varies from deep red to orange and yellow. (Photo courtesy / Voltaire Moise)

Our Hawaiian gardens represent many diverse cultures. The earliest gardens were composed of plants Polynesians brought with them from Asia, the vast Pacific and even South America. With the new DNA research, it is theorized that the first peoples may have come from Madagascar to Taiwan and between, thousand of years ago. This mix of ethnicities is extremely complicated and continues to this day as we share our islands.

To get an understanding of today’s mixture of people, native plants, canoe plants and their cultural importance, the public is invited to the inaugural Hawaii Kuauli Pacific and Asia Cultural Festival to be held May 18-20 at the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. For more information, visit www.hikuauli.com or email at hawaiikuauli@gmail.com. You may also call 331-8265.


According to Kalei Farley, program committee chair, the festival will include education programs, food, music, traditional art and craft workshops as well as a keiki hula competition. The event includes partnerships with the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, Island Breeze Productions and Halau Ka’eaikahelelani. Kalei says the vision of the festival is to create a community within the Pacific and Asia that promotes, honors and builds unity through cultural principles while embracing the emerging generations as they learn, understand and gain a greater appreciation for indigenous values intrinsic to their cultures. It is also important to remember that cultures are constantly evolving and changing much like the plants and animals that now call Hawaii home.

What was it like for the first Polynesian pioneers who found and developed these islands? The forests in those earliest days of human activity were very different than when Captain Cook arrived. What is now pasture used to be forests. Trees like Loulu palms flourished in abundance, but it wasn’t long before the introduction of pigs and rats radically changed things. We have no real clear records of that time, but throughout Polynesia, it is obvious that humans and the animals and plants humans brought with them have had a tremendous impact on the species that evolved on the many isolated islands of Pacifica. Today, erosion is a big problem on most high islands and the rising ocean is swallowing low atolls that have been the homes of islanders for thousands of years.

The moral of this story is that we had better learn to adapt to change but keep as many of the good qualities of the past where we can. We have a wide variety of plants both native and introduced by many different cultures. By keeping the lush vegetation an integral part of our communities, we actually do our part to fight pollution and make life more enjoyable. As individuals, one of the easiest ways to decrease the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is to plant trees. There are a number of trees that can help accomplish this purpose. Among the best are natives like the Loulu palms, Ohia, Hala, Wiliwili, Hoawa, alahe’e and a’ali’i. Other plants, such as the beach and mountain naupaka, are attractive to many birds and also make good ornamentals for a garden. Flowers of the ohia, koa, hau, milo and mamane may even attract some native nectar feeding birds like iiwi, amakihi, apapane, and elepaio.

The hala tree is another tree of interest and beauty. Lauhala or leaf of the pandanus plant has probably been used for thousands of years by the Polynesians. Not only are the leaves used for walls, floor mats, and thatched roofs but modern Polynesians weave purses, shopping bags and hats. Even the parts of the fruit, which resembles a pineapple, were eaten during periods of food shortage. Today, island campers will use the fibrous segments as a toothbrush. The Pandanus family, closely related to palms, is found throughout the old world tropics. There are hundreds of species, from miniature shrubs to large trees. Most Pandans may be distinguished by their aerial roots. These roots give them the common name of “walking trees”. Here in Hawaii, we have two common native species. The puhala, Pandanus odoratissimus, is found along many coastal areas. The mountain ie’ie’, Frecynetia arnotti, is found climbing vine-like up Ohia trees in mauka forests, sometimes 80 feet or more.


Another group of plants to consider are those the Polynesians brought with them like coconut, kukui, Mountain Apple, banana, sugarcane and breadfruit. These include hundreds of varieties.

Remember that our gardens can and should reflect the best of the Hawaiian culture. At the same time recognizing that the Polynesian migrations around the Pacific evolved as time and the environment demanded. Thus Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Marquesan, Tahitian, South Asian and maybe even South American influences are also part of the “Polynesian diaspora” and have a prominent place in our gardens.