Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i
Home - Intro - Contents - Bibliography - Links - Credits
`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

Kanaka Maoli, the original Hawai`i people, used no pottery. For containers, they grew the beautiful and functional hard-shelled and thick-walled hue/gourd, better known as ipu. The ipu have long been used as rattles and drums for chant and dance. Related to the squash, watermelon and cucumber, more than 100 varieties were grown in the old days.

Lageneria siceraria and vulgaris is a native of tropical Asia and Africa. Brought by seed in the canoes of migrating Polynesians, ipu were used during the voyages as water bottles (hue`wai or `olowai), as canoe bailers and as receptacles in which to store fish hooks, fish line, bait, medicine and food.

The spirit of fertility that is the god Lono is embodied in the ipu, which is considered kinolau, body form, of Lono.

A climbing vine, ipu is traditionally planted after the rainy season, during the Hua moon phase, 3-4 days before the full moon. The word hua means fruit. During the flowering stage, when male and female flowers are present, hand pollination is necessary, usually at dusk or night, when the flowers bloom. The flowers are single, small (1 1/12 inches long) and white. Wide-spreading vines with downy, branched tendrils bear rounded heart-shaped hairy leaves. The leaves are 5 lobed and from 4 to16 inches in diameter. As the vine grows, it needs support, such as a rock wall, a tree, or home-made trellis. During the 6-9 months that the ipu fruit takes to mature, they must be carefully tended and protected from stinging and biting insects that like to lay their eggs in the young developing fruit. Coverings of mosquito netting are one way of dealing with this problem. To prevent mold, supports are used to suspend the fruit and mounds of grass or straw are placed beneath the gourd where it contacts the earth. Sometimes green, sometimes white or mottled, the gourds vary in shape and size, according to their variety. They can also be shaped by wrapping or tying them with cord, while they are maturing. Soft and sometimes hairy, the immature fruit becomes smooth as it matures. More varieties have been grown in Hawai`i than elsewhere in Polynesia.

A sunny site on the leeward side, below the 1500 foot elevation, is the best growing place for ipu, although adequate rainfall or irrigation, good drainage and shelter from the wind are all necessary ingredients for fruitful growth. Less water is needed in the last few months of growth. A loamy, sandy soil with crushed lava is best, and of course, lots of room for the spreading vines. To produce the most gourds from each plant, the central vine is cut off at 8-10 feet or earlier, to stimulate extending branches with more female blossoms.

Decorating techniques can begin while the fruit is green. Incised designs will remain and will be darker after drying. The gourd is harvested when the stem is dry, by cutting several inches of stem with a sharp implement. Curing and preserving techniques are being explored and relearned these days. Many months are necessary for the process of curing. Most growers leave the gourd intact until it is dry and the seeds rattle inside when shaken. Other growers open the ipu at the top and scrape out the pulp and seeds, traditionally with an opihi shell, then filling the ipu with a saltwater solution, or with sand. Sometimes an injection dye is used as a decorative technique. These dyes can be made from manmade or plant dyes, such as those with tannic acid, like kukui root bark, kukui leaves mixed with alae dirt, coffee or tea, or the oxalic acid of kalo. These later stages of gourd preparation can often be tricky and varied, and some "failures" do occur in the process.

Traditional gourds were called `umeke pohue. Most were simply left their natural color, which is golden brown when dry, but some were decorated with geometric designs, pawhe, and then stained. This was done only in Hawai`i. The necks were closed off with a stopper, made from a shell, carved wood, coral or a folded leaf. Larger gourds, ipu nui, were used to store food and bigger objects, such as folded tapa cloth and feather regalia. These had lids made from the curved bottom of another gourd. Where a gourd needed to be carried or lifted, cordage was used, made of wauke, `ahu`awa, olona, `aha and other fibers. With a carry net, koko, they could be carried and swung on `auamo mamaka, a shoulder pole.

Ipu were used as dippers, syringes for medicinal purposes, as pots and as eating utensils such as dishes, bowls and mugs. They were also used to store dye, and as burial receptacles for bones.

A small pear-shaped nose whistle called ipu hokiokio is unique to Hawai`i. It is softly played by one lover to another.

In hula, the `uli`uli is used. These are rattles made of small ipu filled with pebbles or the seeds of the canna lily, called ali`ipoe. With an attached handle, these rattles are usually capped with a disc of cloth, and fringed with feathers. Another plant, originally from South America, is nowadays often used for `uli`uli. It is la`amia (Cresentia cujete), the fruit of the calabash tree. Ipu hula, pa`ipu, ipu heke are all names for the hula drum. This musical implement is made by joining a smaller pear-shaped ipu at its top end to the top end of a larger pear-shaped ipu with kepau, the sticky latex sap of breadfruit/ulu. Of course, man-made glues are most often used today. Looped at the juncture of the ipu is a braid of cordage of `aha, coconut fiber, which can be place around the wrist of the performer. The ipu bottom is thumped on the ground, usually on a cloth, and slapped with the hand to create a resonance and beat for the dancers or chanters. A single ipu with a cut open neck, called ipu heke `ole, is also used to accompany hula and chants.

Gourds were a part of ancient legends, myths and rituals, and were sometimes worn by priests as masks during religious ceremonies. The cosmology of an ipu is said to be that it spreads and puts forth fruit, like humankind over the earth. The gourd also represents the earth, with the seeds of all beings contained within.

Ipu indispensable item in Islands' history
The Honolulu Advertiser, Friday, October 13, 2006

Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i
Intro - Contents - Bibliography - Links - Credits

`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