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

He mai`a ke kanaka a ka la e hua ai.
Man is like a banana tree on the day it bears its fruit.
One can tell what kind of man he is by his deeds. In olden days banana stalks were often likened to men. When a man's body was removed from a grave, a banana stalk was laid in to take its place.
The banana is an essential to Pacific island life. It is a staple food brought to Hawai`i by the earliest canoes of Polynesian settlers. Although it is said to have originated in India, it is at the heart of myth and stories world-wide. Some say this plant grew in the garden of Eden.

Polynesian legends, proverbs and similes abound about mai`a. Hawai`i legend tells that a brother of Pele brought the banana to Hawai`i from Tahiti. It is believed to be bad luck to dream of bananas, to meet someone who carries them, or to bring them on a fishing trip. Some similes speak of a person's skin being like a ripe banana or of a person being as beautiful as a young banana leaf. Many tales regard the banana plant as a person. Mai`a is kinolau, the body form, of Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of healing.

There are more than 50 varieties of Musa paradisiaca. Descendants of the early plants are now growing wild in protected valleys, stream gullies and mountain slopes. This common edible fruit native to the tropics ripens all year. Diseases and pests are rare.

Bananas are not really a tree, but are a gigantic herb, being a member of the grass family, like wheat, rye and barley. The fibrous stems, trunks that may be as tall as 20 feet, are up to 8 inches in diameter and are made up of overlapping leaf bases (sheaths). A cross section of the succulent trunk looks like a huge onion slice. The leaves are spirally arranged, rising higher than the stems. Tightly rolled at first, they push their way outward, lubricated by a white waxy powder. The leaf stems become thick, with smooth large blades, usually 4 or more feet long and 1-2 feet wide. These are entire at first, appearing as large rounded blades. They soon split along parallel side veins to appear like a large feather. Wind assists the process.

After the plant reaches full growth, a flower cluster forces its way up through the compressed layers of the leaf sheaths that make up the trunk. The flowers are borne on a thick erect or drooping stem, issuing from the top of the trunk or at the center of the leaf cluster, commonly in flat groups under a large dark to light colored purple-red or green bract. Male flowers are at the stem tip, female flowers at the stem base. The calyx is tubular, soon splitting on one side. There is a corolla with one petal and approximately 6 stamen. The flowers set fruit without pollination and then drop their purple leathery petals one by one. It takes about a year for the plant to produce mature fruit. Each healthy banana plant bears 5 to 9 rows, or hands, of bananas.

To harvest the fruit the entire trunk is cut down, often with one or two swipes of a machete. This can occur when the first banana skin turns yellow, or earlier if the bananas are to be used for cooking, rather than eating while ripe. The trunk is then chopped up and placed as necessary mulch around the base of the clump. Before mulching, one might seek out the banana's heart, which is a round cylindrical white tube with a smooth shiny cover. This lies inside the layers of bark fiber. It can be cooked and is like celery, with a texture and taste similar to bamboo shoots. Fruit varies in size, shape, color, quality and quantity. The pulp may be white, yellow or shades of pink. Some are known as plantain. The raw mature fruit is a sugar and an easily digested source of carbohydrate. The cooked fruit becomes a starch. Green unripe bananas can be boiled or baked in their skins, and are usually eaten as a starch, replacing potatoes, bread or taro. Surplus ripe bananas can be peeled and frozen for later use. They can also be sun-dried on screens, or in an indoor oven or dehydrator machine.

Bananas are a good source of potassium and vitamin A, contain some vitamin B, and a fair amount of vitamin C. They are a fair source of phosphorus and contain some calcium and iron.

Except for two varieties, the yellow fleshed mai`a iho lena and mai`a popo`ula, bananas were kapu, forbidden for women of Hawai`i to eat under penalty of death until the early l800's.

New plants develop quickly from underground stems, usually forming clumps of plants. The new plants are called keiki, children. The mai`a rhizome puts forth pohuli, suckers. Cutting out and transplanting excess pohuli helps to promote fruit production. Keeping two keiki per parent plant seems to work out best. The Hawai`i way is to give extra plants to a friend's garden or to plant them in the wild for times of scarcity. Traditionally, mai`a was planted in clumps around the taro lo`i, pond fields, as well as near dwelling sites.

There are many planting rituals, times and beliefs to ensure productivity. Sometimes planting occurs on the night of the full moon, when the moon is shining straight into the hole. Some people plant at high noon, so that the banana will contain the shadow and the strength will go into the trunk and fruit.

In order to plant, dig a large deep hole, as large as an arm, from elbow to fingertips, ha`ilima. This depth is important to support the shallow root system. For proper propagation, the hole needs good drainage and to be in a place protected from strong winds. Mai`a appear to be sturdy, but have no wood in them for support. They are pure fiber and are 80% water. Copious amounts of water are required to bring these plants to maturity. They also thrive on humus, mulch and plenty of sunshine.

Mai`a has multitudinous uses, in addition to food. Every part of this plant is useful. Leaves: for house roofs, umbrellas and rain hats, as a truce flag, bowl covers, table cloths and temporary mats, cigarette papers, clothing and temporary sandals, dyes, packing material, cattle feed, and as covering for the earth oven, imu, to hold in the heat. Leaf buds: as a vegetable. Leaf sheaths: for water runways, and as containers for lei and plants being transported. Leaf sheath fiber: thatching, stringing lei, tying, plaiting into clothing, cloth and thread. Trunks: to aid canoes as rollers enroute from the shore to the sea; the stalks of a mature felled tree are placed in the imu to add moisture and to create steam in the cooking process; and a dried trunk could be used as support for a person's fractured limb.

`A `ohe hua o ka mai`a i ka la ho`okahi
Bananas do not fruit in a single day.
A retort to an impatient person.
Medicinally, the ripe fruit of mai`a is used for asthma. Boiled ripe banana fruit can be mashed and taken for constipation, especially when mixed with other recommended plants. For strengthening babies, vitamin-rich nectar sap is pinched from the flower bud. Bud juice is used for stomach problems in people of all ages. In the old days, this juice was also used to dye tapa cloth. Perhaps the most popular use of mai`a medicinally is as a poultice for wounds. This can be made of the pounded peels of ripe bananas. There are antibiotic properties in the inside of the peel that are said to be effective against bacteria. Wrap the peel, inside out, around a cut or wound in an emergency.

Bananas teach us patience as they grow and ripen slowly.

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