Canoe Plants: The Ancient Wisdom of Environmental Stewardship
Can you imagine moving to a strange new land, able to bring only what would fit in your small, seafaring canoe? What would you bring with you? What would you leave behind?
It would certainly force you to evaluate what was really important to you. You would have to decide what you could live without, what could be replaced, and what things were essential for survival.
This was the decision ancient Polynesians had to make when they set out to colonize new islands. These islands included the Hawaiian Islands, which Polynesian voyagers discovered as they explored the volcanic islands of the Pacific in their handmade canoes.
Navigators were highly prized, and used an oral tradition to find known islands and remember the location of newly discovered ones. They used complex signs to find their way, like the motion of stars, the presence of wildlife species, the directions of swells on ocean, the colors of sea and sky, and the presence of cloud formations near islands.
Much of their lives and journeys remain mysterious to us, but it’s clear that they travelled by boat,carrying the essentials for life in a new place along with them.
Polynesian explorers and settlers recognized the importance of plants as long-lasting, self-renewing resources. They carefully cultivated and utilized many specific plants for food, clothing, handicrafts, medicine, and religious ceremonies. They recognized their interdependency with these plants, and acted as dedicated stewards to them.
For this reason, they brought certain key plants with them to every new island they colonized. These plants are called the canoe plants. In all, there were about 20-35 canoe plants, including noni. They spread across the Pacific Islands alongside their Polynesian stewards.
Canoe plants travelled in the forms of seeds, stalks, tubers, roots, and cuttings, brought along with explorers in their canoes. When the settlers arrived in their new destination, the plants were cultivated. They spread quickly, forever changing the ecosystems of these islands in order to make them more habitable, according to the Polynesian standard of living.
Usually, when people talk about canoe plants today, they refer specifically to the species brought by the first settlers of the Hawaiian Islands about 1500 years ago, between 300 and 800 CE by many estimates.
Upon their arrival to the islands, early colonists began to establish settlements along coasts and larger valleys. They cultivated the vital canoe plants they had brought with them, raised livestock, and fished for seafood.
The species they brought with them had a huge, permanent impact on the ecosystems of the Hawaiian Islands. Many native species of birds, plants, and land animals were wiped out by over competition, and the new species flourished and spread.
For better or worse, this is a permanent part of Hawaiian history, that can’t be changed. All we can do now is celebrate the amazing diversity of beneficial plants that exist there today.
Crucial Canoe Plants
Here are just a few of the main canoe plants, with their traditional usage.
Noni (Morinda Citrifolia)
This incredible plant is the one we’ve chosen to base our lives around here at Hawaiian Organic Noni. The pulp of this fruit has incredible healing and pain relieving properties, whether eaten or applied to the skin. Noni was eaten every day as a natural preventative to keep themselves healthy and prevent illnesses. The fruit was traditionally used fresh, raw and unfermented. We follow that tradition today by dehydrating the pulp at a low heat that prevents fermentation and which leaves all the beneficial compounds and enzymes intact.
‘Ulu/Breadfruit (Artocarpus Altilis)
Breadfruit, when cooked, has a potato-like flavor reminiscent of fresh bread, and continues to be a dietary staple in Hawaii. In addition, the milky sap was once used for medicinal purposes and the wood was used as timber for structures and canoes.
Kalo/Taro (Colocasia Esculenta)
This may have been the most important of all the canoe plants, traditionally called the elder sibling to the Hawaiian people. All parts of the plant could be eaten, but especially the root, which was mashed to make poi—a staple of their traditional diet. The leaves are also rich in vitamins and minerals.
Ko/Sugarcane (Saccharum Officinarum)
This is among the more famous canoe plants, used for food, juice, and to sweeten other foods. But sugarcane had many medicinal uses as well. In addition, flower stalks were made into game darts. Sugar quickly turned into a big business, with European influence, which had a major impact (good and bad) on Hawaiian history and culture.
Niu/Coconut (Cocos Nucifera)
Another well-known canoe plant is coconut palm, a highly versatile plant. All parts of the tree could be used for food, shelter, musical instruments, and containers.
All of these plants were cared for, protected, and spread by the first Hawaiian settlers, because they recognized how vital they were to life in their new homes.
Tradition of Stewardship
In 1982, when my family moved to Kauai from our organic farm in California, we also had to make important decisions about what to bring with us. We were moving to a new place, with no roads, electricity, water, or buildings.
But there were lots of noni trees, and we had brought with us our desire to learn about and care for plants. We worked to translate our organic farming practices to care for the noni growing throughout our valley.
Over time, we built our home there. We build a house, created roads, drilled wells, and developed solar and wind-generated electricity. We raised a family and cared for many plants and animals. All in the shadow of trees which got their start from settlers just like us.
We strive every day to learn from their example, and make the most use of noni fruit that we possibly can. It’s our mission to spread this ancient knowledge throughout the world, through our noni fruit leather and lotions.