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
In a society without nails or man-made fibers, olona fibers were a true blessing to the life of the people.
One of the plants thought by some to have been brought to Hawai`i long ago by voyaging Polynesian settlers, olona is found only in these Hawai`i islands, especially in windward Maui and in east Moloka`i. There are other researchers who believe olona to be an endemic plant rather than an introduced one.
The scientific name of this fiber plant is Touchardia latifolia. Although it is not common today, this stout-stemmed rainforest shrub of the nettle family can still be found in the gullies of lower elevation forests, near the 2,000 foot level, or in very wet boggy interior valleys near streams.
With 4 to 8 foot tall stems in the wild, the bark of olona slips off easily, revealing the inner bark or bast, which is made up of fine quality fibers that are durable and said to be many times stronger than hemp fiber. When young, the outer bark is green, turning brown as the plant ages.
The large dark green serrated ovate leaves are 9 to 16 inches long with broad bases, 5 to 9 inches wide. The leaves have netted veins that are more prominent on the underside, due to their reddish-brown color.
Olona has multiple flowers that turn to clustered flesh-orange colored fruit at the ends of the branches. These resemble the "mulberry" of Mamaki, a close relative.
Propagation is from rooted stem cuttings, root shoots and occasionally from seeds, all of which were thickly planted in previously cleared areas. Although seldom cultivated these days, in ancient Hawai`i olona was widely cultivated in very wet interior valleys upland.
Some olona plantation patches were as large as two to three acres. The cuttings were planted close together to encourage straight unbranched stems. The few branches that did grow were removed regularly. In a year's time the plants were mature enough to harvest. They were 6 to 10 feet tall, and the bark could be easily stripped at this young age.
Temporary crude shelters for hanging the drying strips of olona were built near the olona patch. The leaves were removed, and the stems cut at soil level, so shoots would regrow. The stems (with a few leaf nodes) which were taken were ripped into strips, usually 6 feet long and 1 to 2 inches wide. The outer bark was carefully stripped off with opihi/limpet shells, usually over hardwood boards or large flat stones. The strips were then rolled inside out, and soaked for a few short days in a shallow place in a nearby stream. The next step was to scrape off the remaining pulp with seashell or turtle shell scrapers. The strips were then hung to dry in the shed. At the same time workers were separating the clean strong fibers into various widths, and bundling them into rolls for the return to the village. There they were bleached in the sunlight and later twisted by the village women into fine cordage of varying thicknesses.
The white cordage was highly valued for its light weight and its exceeding great strength under duress.
After Captain Cook's arrival, later traders prized and purchased olona cordage for ships' rigging and for whalers' harpoon lines. Word reached Europe of the superior qualities of Hawai`i's olona cordage, such as it does not kink nor stretch, and Swiss climbers began to import it for their use in the mountains of the Alps.
The pliable whitish cordage and twine from olona remains soft and resists breaking down from exposure to sea water, so here in Hawai`i Nei it was the main fiber used for aho, fishing line, where the no-kink and no-stretch factors were also useful. Fishnets with large mesh, upena, as well as finer fishnets, and net bags for carrying containers, koko, were also crafted from olona fiber. To prolong its life, it was often treated with kukui oil.
Carefully crafted olona fibers made up the net base that provided backing for the exceptionally fine feather cloaks, ahu`ula, as well as for some of the feather helmets, mahiole, and for ti leaf capes, ahu la`i. Kahili feather standard were wound with olona cord. Olona cordage was superior for tying adz heads to hau wood handles.
Other uses for olona in ancient Hawai`i were as threads for stitching together tapa bark cloth, into garments, for stringing and wrapping all manner of lei, to tie off the umbilical cord after a birth, for canoe lines and for every possible purpose that we today might use rope, twine, string or thread.
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Intro - Contents - Bibliography - Links - Credits