Story by Samson Reiny
Photos by Dana Edmunds
It was while wandering off a pig-hunter’s trail on a recent hike through the Wai‘anae Mountains that I discovered the ancient Hawaiian version of a Zen garden. A grove of towering ti plants stood sedate in the crisp air, growing among a complex of rock walls and terraced platforms. Hawaiians have long regarded traditional green ti (which they call ki) as an avatar of peace, and the Wai‘anae ki I stumbled on — which by the looks of their massive root systems were likely planted centuries ago — hadn’t lost their powers: They radiated a calm that instantly put me at ease. I sat down, time slowed down, and as I relaxed in the grove, the only thing I came to notice were the leaves brushing against each other in the breeze.
The ki that surrounded me that day cuts an ascetic figure in the plant world. With its thin trunk and cluster of monochrome leaves, it betrays not a sign of the botanical gaudiness that defines more ambitious flora. (Traditional ki, by the way, is not to be confused with the much more florid ti that arrived later in the Islands.) Ki owes its very existence today to human intervention: At some point in its history, it lost its ability to produce flowers and pollen and so cannot procreate by seed. The Hawaiians of old had to cultivate ki just as we do today: by cutting parts of existing plants and sowing those offshoots in the ground. The Wai‘anae ki I sat among had to have been placed in that remote spot by human hands long before I showed up.
The connection between man and ki can be traced to the transoceanic voyages of the earliest Polynesians. These mariners carried stem cuttings that they planted wherever they landed. At the tail end of this oceanic diaspora were the Hawaiians, who propagated ki vigorously in their new home. The plants offered the Polynesians not only spiritual comfort; their practical uses also made them an invaluable asset for survival. Today we think of ki leaves as material to make lei or wrap laulau—but in pre-contact Hawai‘i, ki played a much, much larger role.