Native Intelligence: Kaua‘i

Grove of the Navigators

Story by Brittany Lyte. Photo by Mallory Roe.

Hundreds of years before this portion of Kaua‘i’s lush Lāwa‘i valley became part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, the Polynesian voyagers who lived here built stone walls and agricultural terraces. While the ancient civilization is gone, the plants they cultivated are still here. Renovated in early 2018, the Hawaiian Life Canoe Garden is home to two dozen “canoe plants”—those species that the Polynesian voyagers considered important enough to carry aboard their sailing canoes when they set off in search of new islands.

Along a footpath winding past sculpted cliffs in the NTBG’s McBryde Garden, heart-shaped leaves the size of umbrellas grow from kalo (taro) root. Hawaiians regarded this starchy staple food—still eaten today—as an ancestor, the brother of humankind. The path passes ‘awa, also known as kava, which has been used for thousands of years throughout Oceania as a medicine and mild sedative. Hawaiian cultural practitioners still use the bark of the wauke, or paper mulberry, to make kapa (bark cloth) and cordage. There’s ‘uala (sweet potato), ‘ulu (breadfruit), kō (sugar cane) and other recognizable edible and medicinal plants, but some might be unfamiliar even to Island residents, like the ‘auhuhu, once used to poison fish, making them easy to catch.

“Most of these are plants that are well known and beloved in Hawai‘i, but some are plants that people rarely see,” says NTBG spokesman Jon Letman. “Having this canoe garden will help people learn about Hawai‘i—not in just a historical sense, but about Hawaiian culture as it lives and thrives today.” Apart from the displays of Hawai‘i’s canoe plants, the Hawaiian Life Canoe Garden includes an authentic thatched hale (house) built using traditional methods and a hula mound where visitors can experience cultural demonstrations and dance performances.

One of the most intriguing additions is a star compass embedded in the ground, with a brass ‘iwa (great frigate bird) at its center. Celebrated in Hawaiian culture for its mastery of long-duration flight, the ‘iwa can stay aloft for weeks without rest. Like the plants growing all around it, the bird depicted on the compass is an enduring symbol of survival.