Amoeba’s Lorica: Reading the Ti Leaves

Among the many unique elements of Hawaiian lore is the concept of “canoe plants”, which accompanied the original Polynesian settlers on their voyages to Hawai‘i, and became part of the island flora once those settlers got here.

(We pause briefly to consider how it is that plants and animals, brought to Hawai‘i by Polynesians on their wa‘a, came to be known as “culturally significant introductions”, while those brought to Hawai‘i by Europeans on container ships and 747s came to be known as “invasive species”. Done? Cool. We now return you to your more-or-less regularly-scheduled blog post.)

High on the list of canoe plants is the shrub or small tree known to the Hawaiians as ki, to much of the rest of Polynesia as ti, and to scientists (and those who, like YFNA, pretend to be) as Cordyline fruticosa. It’s a relative of asparagus. Its broad leaves come in various shades of green, or green and white, or green and red, depending on which variety you’ve got growing in your garden. Periodically, it sends out sprays of white to pinkish-purplish flowers, which sooner or later give way to red berries.

Yes, yes, it says here that you can make tea out of ti leaves, at least from the young ones. Though, since the resulting drink is said to be useful as a nerve and muscle relaxant, and the steam from the boiling as a decongestant, YFNA reckons that the result would taste (ahem) medicinal. Far more (ahem) medicinally interesting is the potent alcoholic beverage, okolehao, that can be distilled from the mashed and fermented root of the plant.

Nay, you’d be far more likely to carry a ti bag than brew it. Hawaiians made rain capes, hula skirts, and other garments out of the leaves. Ti leaves are also used to wrap stuff. Like laulau. Steamed vegetables. Other foods, for cooking and storage.

Hair.

The story is told that, when Hualalai volcano erupted in 1801 (it has not erupted since), the lava flows destroyed breadfruit groves and fishponds that served the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, whose royal residence was at Kailua Kona, just south of the flows. Sacrifices of pigs and produce to Pele were of no avail. Finally, Kamehameha himself went to the “crater” (the flank vent that was the source of the offending flow, actually some distance from the mountain’s summit), and sacrificed “himself” by cutting off a lock of his hair, wrapping it in a ti leaf, and throwing this ho‘okupu into the vent. And, so the story goes, the lava flow stopped.

Ki (Ti), sacred to the god Lono and the goddess of hula Laka, is credited with great spiritual power. It’s planted around Hawaiian homes for good luck. It continues to be used in religious ceremonies. It’s worn, carried, or placed to mark boundaries against the intrusion of ghosts and evil spirits, and to invite occupation by good spirits.

Hell. If you’ve got a lava flow inexorably bearing down on you, you may as well try something.

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One Response to Amoeba’s Lorica: Reading the Ti Leaves

  1. Nathalie says:

    Hey I enjoyed this.

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