“In a world without metal, cordage tied everything together,” says craftsman and artist Gary Eoff. In old Hawai‘i fibers from many plants like niu (coconut) and hau were twisted into cordage, but the finest came from olonā. One of the strongest natural fibers in the world, olonā is also light, durable, flexible and water-resistant. It’s easy to work with and doesn’t stretch or kink.
Hawaiians used olonā to make nets and fishing lines. It fastened sharks’ teeth to daggers and feathers to regalia. Only chiefs could wear a malo (loincloth) of olonā. In the 1870s King David Kalākaua even sold a supply to Swiss mountaineers. The only endemic species and nonfood plant cultivated by early Hawaiians, “olona was highly prized by one and all,” writes historian Samuel Kamakau. “Should one or two acres be planted … the prosperity of a chief or of a lord came to the planter.” Part of what made olonā so valuable is that it’s incredibly difficult to grow; even in ideal conditions it’s susceptible to pests.
Renowned ethnobotanist Isabella Abbott once lamented that olonā cultivation was not among the indigenous traditions revived during the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s. Were she alive today, she’d be thrilled to know that Eoff, whom she’d mentored, has been trying to grow the finicky plant for twenty years. And he’s finally figured it out.
It started as a mission to make his own cordage, but Eoff didn’t want to harvest olonā from the wild. “I was taught before I take anything to mālama [care for] it,” he says. Through trial and error Eoff eventually cultivated a sustainable supply. After he made his first strand, he presented it to Willy Grey Eagle McGlothlin, the man who taught him to make cordage. “I came to him with forty feet of string. It was like gold,” Eoff says. “He asked me, ‘Now what are you going to do with it?’ So I made a little net for an ipu lē‘ī,” a gourd container used for storing fishhooks.
“If you want to grow olonā, you have to really, really want to grow olonā,” Eoff says, eager to pass on his knowledge to those who are ready for it. “You have to look at the plants every day. They depend on you to live.”
Story by Catharine Lo Griffin. Photos by Jack Wolford.