Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i
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`Ape - `Awa -`Awapuhi -Hau -Ipu -Kalo -Kamani -Ki -Ko -Kou -Kukui -Mai`a
Milo -Niu -Noni -`Ohe -`Ohi`a `Ai -`Olena -Olona -Pia -`Uala -Uhi -`Ulu -Wauke
Cocos nucifer, niu's scientific and botanical name, is slender and tall, up to 100 feet, with a cluster of leaves at the top of a slightly curved stem or trunk. It has a swollen base which is ringed, making a perfect ladder for the very agile. These steps mark points of attachment of the fallen leaf fronds, which are from 10 to 18 feet long. The trunk is very strong and elastic, and is able to bend in heavy winds. In times of hurricanes the coconut palm has been a life saver. People lashing themselves to this flexible tree have avoided being swept out to sea.
Hawai`i is on the edge of the coconut belt. The coconut bears better nearer the equator, where it is more widely used than here. In Hawai`i there are other plants, native and introduced, that provide as well for people's needs. Niu was valued cargo on the sailing canoes of the original Polynesian voyagers to Hawai`i Nei. Some of the ancestors of our trees also floated ashore, alive for up to 4 months at sea, still able to germinate. Coconuts grow well near the ocean, thriving in sandy soil near salt spray. Our coastlines have the remnants of many ancient groves. Niu is the kinolau of Ku.
This palm is the most useful plant of the tropics. It is said that more uses are made of it than any other tree in the world. Besides drink, food and shade, niu offers the possibilities of housing, thatching, hats, baskets, furniture, mats, cordage, clothing, charcoal, brooms, fans, ornaments, musical instruments, shampoo, containers, implements and oil for fuel, light, ointments, soap and more.
Traditionally, a coconut palm is planted at the birth time of a kama`aina. The tree bears fruit around the seventh birthday, for up to 70-100 years, providing food for a human lifetime. There may be up to 50 fruit a year. A he`e, octopus, was often planted in the bottom of the hole, furnishing fertilizer and giving the plant the idea of roots that spread and grip, and a body that is fat and round.
Nectar-producing fountaining flowers, in a spathe, bloom at any time of year. The budding flower sprays are tapped for their sap, which can yield sweet syrup, vinegar or wine. Left untrimmed, the tree continually produces a prodigious number of nuts, with mature fruit constantly available. It takes 15 months from flower to mature fruit, but the nut (drupe) is usable at about 5 months. The mature fruit is 10 to 12 inches long, usually with 3 sides, having a thick fibrous husk encasing the hard-shelled, one seeded nut. There are 3 pores at one end. One pore may be easily punched to obtain the water.
The perfect drinking nut is full-sized, yet immature. It is green, with no trace of yellow color, and it must be picked. Up to one quart of water is inside, but you can't hear it when you shake it. The yellow or browning coconut is mature when it drops to the ground. There is still some water in the cavity, which can be combined to make coconut milk. Coconut milk is a blend of coconut water and the scrapings of the coconut meat. This milk is a good source of iron and contains calcium, phosphorus, protein and vitamins.
Coconut water, like the taro, is an alkali producer in the digestive system and therefore helps in the important balancing of pH in the human body. Often, a too-acidic body is prone to disease, whereas if the pH is balanced with alkaline-producing foods, the body is more prone to stay in good health.
As food, the niu flesh or meat is used for different purposes, depending upon the maturity of the nut. The jelly-like spoon meat of a green nut is called `o`io. The next stage is haohao, when the shell is still white and the flesh soft and white. Half ripe, at the ho`ilikole state, it is eaten raw with Hawai`i red salt and poi. At the o`o stage, the nut is mature, but the husk not dried. The flesh of a mature nut at the malo`o stage is used to make coconut cream, which when mixed with kalo/taro makes a dish called kulolo; with `uala/sweet potato it is called poipalau; and paipaiee with ripe `ulu/breadfruit. These delicious dessert-like foods were traditionally cooked in the imu, underground oven. Haupia is made with niu cream mixed with pia/Polynesian arrowroot, traditionally wrapped in ti leaves and baked in the imu. The mature meat of coconut is also grated, squeezed or scraped to be cooked in main dishes with fish, chicken or greens.
Medicinally, a small piece of coconut meat was chewed following the ingestion of disagreeable tasting medicines. Fishermen also chewed the meat and spit the oil onto the water, to produce a glossy calm place, smooth enough to spot the fish below the surface.
The malo`o stage is also the stage for planting. Propagation is by planting the whole coconut, usually at its growing site. It is easy to determine the top of the nut by floating it in water. Plant it with this side up, partially cover and keep moist. Germination occurs in four to five months.
If the coconut is to be transplanted, germination should be atop wide screening or loose rocks to prevent the roots from taking hold. The plant should be moved before it is a foot high. The plant responds well to organic fertilization and mulching, particularly as it later begins to bear.
The coconut heart is sometimes eaten as a vegetable, when a felled tree presents itself. The heart is located just below the crown of leaves, and can be as long as a human leg. It keeps fresh for about two weeks. The iho, spongy pulp, in a sprouting nut is also considered choice food.
Wahi ka niu, break open the coconut!
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