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Nā Mo‘olelo Mea Kanu Hawai‘i - Plant Stories

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N ā M o ‘ o l e l o M e a K a n u H a w a i‘i
P l a n t S t o r i e s

You may have noticed a few plants on your morning or evening stroll along side the famous shoreline at Waikīkī. These plants appear only to be decor to compliment the dull colors of the city, but, they aren’t just a vibrant splash of color in our world, they are our world. Our native plants, that which inhabited the islands before people, are the original settlers and created history that the seafarers recognized and learned from. Plants provide life and teach life. You just have to be very quite to understand what they are saying.

A very long time ago, before the sun had ever come up from the sea, two gods gave light to the world, the stars and the moon. One day, the tree god journeyed down to the estuary where fresh water meets ocean water. He gathered moist sand and made seeds of many kinds. When the seeds dried, he planted them all over the island from the shore to the black lava slopes inland. Tiny trees sprung up with many colored leaves. For some time, these trees grew, but the dim light of the moon and stars were not enough. They sickened and withered away. Searching everywhere, the tree god realized all his creations were dead, except for one kind. Nourished only by the moon and stars, the little trees flourished in small gulches. Their leaves resemble the moonlight seen through the reflection of still water or through floating clouds.
Kukui trees still grown in gulches, on mountain slopes, and near the ocean. As the sun now nourishes the plant, its new leaves are light green; as it ages, the leaves turn a silvery color, so that a kukui grove looks as if it’s moonlit. The trees seem to remember it was the moon that gave light to their ancestors.
From a legend told by a Hawaiian boy and written by MacCaugh for “Paradise of the Pacific.” Retold by Ke‘ala Wong.

Human settlement introduced many primary resources to these islands. These resources, known as canoe plants, were brought on the long voyage because of their uses. Kukui is one of these plants. It is a vigorous grower that bears nuts all year round. Besides giving off a silvery glisten, the leaves are recognized by their three-to-five points. You may have worn the shell of this nut as it is commonly fashioned into lei, mostly looking like a string of shiny black nuts. The little green nut is edible and is a highly active laxative used in various types of medicine. When roasted and minced, the kukui nut becomes a delicious garnish called inamona, which you may have eaten if you tried Hawai‘i’s most prized delicacy, Hawaiian style ‘ahi poke. Traditionally, the nut was used as lamp fuel due to its oil potency. The meat of the nut was able to hold a flame as candle wax does. Being able to see at night prolonged the day for the ancient people. This tree is seen as a symbol of enlightenment, and became noted as the State Tree since 1959.

Look out: Kukui is seen at both ends of Waikīkī strip. You can spot them in front of the Zoo next to the coconut trees on the corner of Kapahulu and Kalākaua Streets, and also at Fort DeRussey Park or along the Ala Wai canal on the other end. Just look for the silvery light-green leaves up above, with hanging green round fruit.