Issue 15.2: April/May 2012

The Ti of Life

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.


Kahu Lyons Naone

No one is more capable of explaining that role than Kahu Lyons Naone, an acknowledged authority on Hawaiian spirituality (Kahu, at the request of Mikhail Gorbachev, once gave the opening convocation at an international gathering of native leaders in San Francisco). An expert in the art of la‘au lapa‘au (healing through medicinal plants), the 67-year-old teacher inherited the knowledge from his grandmother, a woman who had drawn her own expertise from a lineage that traces to those who first carried ki on their doublehulled canoes.


At Kahu’s forest retreat in the uplands of Maui’s Hana district, the ki leaves (which in Hawaiian are called la‘i) have exceptionally rich dark green hues; they relish the showers that regularly roll through the island’s eastern bluffs. It is only up close that one can appreciate the size of a Hana la‘i—the choice leaves that Kahu has just stripped from a nearby thicket are a good three feet long. And they take on even more impressive dimensions in Kahu’s hands as he reveals a few of their many uses. “If I’m in the mountains and need something, most likely the la‘i will help me,” he tells me when we meet. “It’s my kako‘o. It’s my support.”


Kahu—who was taught as a boy that all of nature is imbued with a spirit—always pays his respects to the plant before he picks leaves. “The la‘i actually sacrifices its body for our benefit,” he explains. “You say ‘Mahalo, e kala mai [excuse me] but we need you.’” His first task is often deveining the la‘i by removing the midrib that runs down the length of each leaf. He does this by first biting and severing a thin part of the midrib located near the tip. Then, gently holding the severed point with his thumb and index finger, he uses his other hand to pull the tip of the leaf away from him, allowing the midrib to detach itself. What’s left is something pliable and very useful.


After splitting a few leaves in half lengthwise, Kahu begins to braid the la‘i three at a time ponytail-style. The leaves crunch and crackle. When their lengths run short, Kahu inserts another leaf into the weave. In the span of a few short minutes, a rope of several feet hangs to the floor. He ties the ends off and pulls it taut. “Maybe you went hunting and now you have to carry a pig down,” he says. “This is enough to tie the legs around you.”


He goes on: You could also make a basket and carry kalo (taro). If you’re walking over sharp coral or pokey dried lava, braid a pair of kama‘a, or sandals. If you’re stranded in the forest one night, a layer of la‘i will keep you warm. A kui la‘i, or rain cape consisting of layers of leaves attached to netting, has the shielding power of a windbreaker. La‘i can even quell a hunger pang. At one point Kahu goes back to the thicket of nearby ki and lops off what he calls the mu‘o, the tender coil of leaf buds that shoots up like a small pole from the plant’s crown. He hands me the stalk, saying, “The white part at the bottom will give you protein.”


As I chew my crunchy, slightly astringent snack, Kahu is already busy at work on another ancient ki innovation. Holding two pliant la‘i in one hand and in the other hand a leaf that still has its midrib intact, he initiates a series of blinding sleight-ofhand knotting and folding movements. In a minute he’s gripping his creation by the lone stem that’s jutting out from the weave work; it resembles a covered miniature frying pan. “You use this to cook your medicine,” he says.


According to Kahu, la‘i harvested specifically for use as la‘au, or medicine, require a more stringent protocol. This, he explains, is because on a spiritual level any leaf used for healing acquires a unique frequency that matches up with a particular person. “I ask the la‘au to show itself,” he says. “You can have a forest of ten million la‘i, but only one or three will be meant for this patient. Those la‘i will naka, or quiver, in a certain way that’s going to draw your attention.” And what happens when he can’t find the right la‘i? “Then I go all the way back outside the forest,” he responds, “and start over again. I’ll find it.”


Once the right leaf is found, the plant is ready to heal. Kahu illustrates its simplest application by pulling another leaf, just drenched by a rogue downpour, and pressing it across my head. It’s as cold as a glass of ice water and the perfect salve for a fever or headache. “The only problem is that after the first kid gets one, all the kids tell you they have a headache, too,” he says with a laugh. Next he scrapes at the leaf’s dull underside with a utility knife until a sticky green pile of shavings accumulates. “This,” he says, “will drain out and clean a boil after it breaks.” Used with popolo berries, ki can treat cataracts: First the popolo burns the cataract, then the white part of the mu‘o is mashed and mixed with water; the resulting juice is used to wash out the eye.


Kahu has saved his explanation of ki’s spiritual significance for last. He preps himself by tying together the base ends of two pliable leaves, then slices the leaves lengthwise several times with his fingernails until they resemble strips of green ribbon. Placing the garland around his neck and over his bare chest, he proclaims, “This is the only lei I know.”


He is, he tells me, frequently called upon to appease what he refers to as “restless spirits”—though he makes it a point to say that it is not the spirits causing the affront. “The humans have done an offensive thing,” he explains. “I come in to say, ‘E kala mai.’”


To appease the spirits it’s essential, Kahu says, that he find la‘i that come from ki in the area where there is disturbance. “The spirituality of the place is all in that plant,” he says. Once the leaves are found, the ceremony can begin. Initially, he brings in ‘ohe, or bamboo, to dispel negativity. Then, while reciting the appropriate oli (chant), he repeatedly dips a few la‘i into a mixture of mountain water and sea salt, then shimmies the leaves toward the areas of concern. In doing so, he says, “I bring peace to the spirits.”


As I take my leave, Kahu offers me a piece of advice on preventing those kinds of disturbances: It’s good Hawaiian “feng shui,” he says, to plant ki along paths frequented by the spirits of the ancestors or in places their remains are interred. “For us in the physical world,” he says, “we think those people who walked on this earth a thousand years ago are gone. No, the spirit is still going. The la‘i honors their connection to that place.”


Driving from Hana back to the town of Pa‘ia that day, I took the dry and rocky southeastern route past Kaupo. The landscape reminded me of Makua Beach, a barren, beautiful stretch of sand back home on O‘ahu where my grandfather lived for most of his life before passing away seven years ago. A moment from the past suddenly leapt out at me, illuminated by what I had just learned from Kahu: Several months after my grandfather’s funeral I revisited his camp. In the middle of a small clearing, I found a newly planted ki just beginning to take root in the loamy soil. I now realized its significance, and I was grateful to whoever planted it—for the fact that they knew of the ki’s goodness and the fact that they remembered.


Tsuneo Iwami

Throughout the last century
the ti plant, both physically and conceptually, has undergone a drastic transformation in these Islands. The many uses of the la‘i have been supplanted by the conveniences of the parka, rubber slippers and the sleeping bag. At the same time, new ti varieties introduced to the Islands from other tropical climates have allowed the plant to flourish under a different banner: its diversity of colors and shapes. Its leaves, once seen only in monochrome green, now come in almost any color, and their once traditional oval shape is now as plain as a crew cut.


Few people are as knowledgeable about these botanical émigrés as 82-year-old Tsuneo Iwami, who thirty years ago started collecting ti plants because, he recalls, “I don’t want a yard with just green. I want color!” The avuncular retired technical illustrator has been a plant historian for decades, and he also served as the Hawai‘i representative for the International Cordyline Society from 1995 to 2003 (ti’s scientific name is Cordyline terminalis).


As far as Iwami can tell, the first of the newer ti varieties to arrive in the Islands were brought by Harold Lyon, a researcher for the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association who was sent to the Caribbean in the late 1920s to study farming methods. Lyon brought back several ti that, unlike the Hawaiian ki, were fertile and whose seeds produced plants of vastly differing appearance. These imports were the genetic forebears of many of the beautifully colored cultivars that caught the Hawai‘i public’s attention in the 1950s. “Some of these old varieties are still popular today,” Iwami says, citing the red- and greenstreaked Hilo Rainbow and the stubby magenta-splashed Kaupo Beauty, both of which grow in his garden.


Flipping through his folder of archived newspapers, Iwami talks of other ti pioneers. In a 1952 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, horticulturalist Collin Potter is proclaimed godfather of the first orangestriped ti after breeding the highly soughtafter Johnny Cummins. A year later, in an article titled “Ti Time,” prominent Maori physician and anthropologist Sir Peter Buck is credited with introducing a ti of green, red and yellow from his homeland. (Buck, whose writings on Polynesia are legendary, is doubly famous in the ti world for a popular red ti from Tahiti that is named after him.)


Iwami has tried to keep track of the ever-growing number of varieties of ti on Hawai‘i’s garden scene, filling scrapbooks with decades’ worth of nursery inventories along with correspondence with breeders, collectors and botanists. But even for someone as meticulous as Iwami, keeping up has become an almost impossible task. He remembers when fellow ti enthusiast Carin Procter tried to catalog them all. Laughing ruefully like a man who has himself tried and failed, he says, “I heard she quit.”


As Iwami strolls through his garden, he is full of memories. He points to one ti that has thin leggy leaves streaked with white; he calls it Ua Pou. A Chinese friend from Tahiti gave it to him as part of a plant exchange in the early 1990s. “He said it’s from the Marquesas Islands,” he recalls. “It’s a strong plant, grows fast.” Another variety stands mightily in front of his house. The trunk is the size of a birch tree; its enormous thick leaves droop under their own weight. “It’s called the Green Giant,” Iwami says with a smile.


After a late lunch and as the sun dips toward the horizon, Iwami and I are looking out to the backyard from the large windows of his dining room. The graying bachelor says that at his age he can barely keep up with the ti; they require so much water, he says, and to make things worse, his area has hit a dry spell. The plants, he laments, should be bigger and more robust. Yet not caring for them any more would be unthinkable. “A part of me is in each of them,” he confides. “They’re like my children. They’re my legacy.”


David Yearian

David Yearian is,
by Tsuneo Iwami’s standards, the champion ambassador of the current generation of cultivators who are carrying Hawai‘i ti into the twenty-first century. Over the span of four decades, Yearian has bred a few hundred unique varieties of ti—and in the process he has transformed his Waimanalo estate on O‘ahu into a two-acre showcase garden.


Yearian’s aptly named nursery, Ti’s Unlimited, is a shrine to Cordyline. Fed by perpetual stream water and sunshine, the six hundred varieties of ti found here are radiant. The Pa‘ele’s glossy maroon leaves rise over one another flawlessly in tiers. Directly below them, the Miniature Purple Prince rivals a kaleidoscope with its symmetry. The Blushing Bride flushes bubblegum pink at the crown before blending into dark green leaves below.


Yearian is, in many ways, heir to the ti enthusiasts of yesteryear. He began working as a yard boy for Carin Procter in Nu‘uanu in the late 1970s, and it was she who kindled his interest in the numerous varieties this plant’s seeds could produce. Sometime after, Yearian met landscape painter Hiroshi Tagami, who at the time had been breeding ti commercially for well over a decade. It was Tagami who helped Yearian cross-pollinate his first batch of cultivars. From that planting sprouted what would become his first commercial hybrid: a voluptuous, large-leafed pink variety he named for his mother, Beverly.


Almost every December when the ti begins to flower, Yearian goes through the same ritual he has undertaken since he hybridized Beverly some twenty-five years ago. After selecting the ti he thinks will breed well with each other, he takes a thin-tipped artist’s brush and smears the pollen from one plant onto the pistils of another. After four or five hours the flowers close, and in three months, swollen berries hang off their stems. From each berry, five to seven black seeds are squeezed out, planted into flats and grown. After the passage of a few winters, Yearian can at last make out the color and shape of each plant. At this point he starts yanking out the undesirables. And he’s very discriminating: Of the roughly five hundred seeds sowed each year, only a few will become commercial hybrids. “I make sure that they don’t look like any of the others that are already out there,” he says. As proof he points to his latest creation, the Ros Miller, a novel beauty that sports dusty pink, green and purple leaves that twist into loose corkscrews.


As much as he’s tending to new creations, Yearian is also preserving older varieties that are close to extinction. Doing so, he says, honors the efforts of those who bred them. One ti in particular stands out. In the late 1980s, Procter gave Yearian a Blushing Bride, a Tagami creation that was the last of its kind. After more than two decades of vigilance, Yearian has now propagated them back to number eighty healthy plants.


“Tagami has had a profound influence on me, not just as a gardener, but as a person,” Yearian says. “As a tribute to him, I want to keep this plant from disappearing. That way, a part of his legacy can live on for future generations.”


Kaponoai Molitau

At Kepaniwai Park,
on the narrow forest floor that snakes through Maui’s ‘Iao Valley, Kaponoai Molitau is weaving a lei of la‘i. He handles the leaves with finesse as they succumb to his measured pulls and twists.


Molitau, who is kumu hula of Halau Na Hanona Kulike ‘o Pi‘ilani, talks of the connection between la‘i and hula— a connection that goes back to antiquity. The goddess Laka was keeper of the hula tradition and also held dominion over forest plants. Her affinity for ki is evidenced by the plant’s frequent presence on Laka altars and by its use as hula attire. “Wearing la‘i,” confirms Molitau, “heightens your sense of awareness with the dance.”


Given its relative fragility compared with raffia or hau, braiding la‘i is one of the more challenging feats in the lei-making repertoire; mastering it, Molitau says, is a sign that a student is well underway. Regardless of skill level, though, working with la‘i requires both concentration and positive energy, because the leaf absorbs the ‘ano, or disposition, of the person working with it. “If you’re not makaukau [prepared] and you’re making your lei,” Molitau says, “your lei will come out the way you feel. If you’re feeling really junk, it will come out junk.” He chuckles. “And your kumu will know that you’ve had a rough day.”


Molitau must be in a good mood; his lei today is a study in symmetrical beauty. After he’s pau (finished), as we sit by a Hawaiian hale (house) in the park, Molitau fixes his gaze on a row of young ki. He crosses to the plants and gently caresses a burgeoning leaf. As so often happens with this plant, which evokes such deep memories and emotions, he’s reminded of a coming-of-age story.


Twenty years ago when he graduated to kumu hula, Molitau recalls, his teacher and adoptive father, the legendary hula teacher John Lake, gave him a mu‘o, the tender shoot at the tip of a ki, and told him to make sure it didn’t die. Growing the plant from its mu‘o, Molitau reminds me, is more challenging than growing it from a cutting. “I placed it in wet moss and watched and cared for it,” he recalls. From that one mu‘o, ten generations of ki now flourish in his yard. He uses those ki to teach his students of the plant’s importance. “Our kupuna give us the mu‘o,” he says, “and out of that unfurls a new leaf of knowledge that generations of others will get the opportunity to learn from. It’s amazing.”