3/24/22: Kauai’s Canoe Plants @ Limahuli Garden & Preserve!

Family and friends,

Well before we left home for dreamy Kauai, Steven and I had the good sense to book reservations to walk around the Limahuli Garden & Preserve located in Haena in northwestern Kauai. Part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, visiting Limahuli was one of the reasons we’d chosen to stay a few nights on Kauai’s North Shore. What a great decision that turned out to be as the huge garden nestled in Limahuli Valley with sweeping views of the mountains and the sea was beautiful even in the mist! I am pretty sure you will agree after looking at the photos.

All the best to you and your loved ones,


While preparing for this trip to Hawaii, I’d read that drivers needed to practice aloha when coming to the many one-way bridges on Kauai. What that meant was adhering to the local custom of allowing five to seven cars to pass before proceeding across bridges.  

About a month ago, we’d made timed reservations to walk through the 1,000-acre Limahuli Garden & Preserve, one of Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Gardens. Meaning “turning hand” in Hawaiian, Limahuli is nestled on the northern side of Kauai. We hadn’t known that the garden also held a treasure trove of archaeological sites and focuses on maintaining native culture.

I’d never heard the term Canoe Garden before our walk at Limahuli – what that meant were the plants on these terraces came on the long-distance canoes of the ancient Polynesians who may have arrived as early as 200 AD but were definitely here by 1,000 AD. Polynesians, carrying all they would need to survive, sailed across huge expanses of ocean from islands south of Hawaii, likely from the Marquesas Islands, in search of new islands. 

After reaching Hawaii, they looked for new areas for settlement. Archaeological evidence proves that the Limahuli Valley with its fertile soil, plentiful marine life, frequent rain, and the constant stream was one of the earliest settlements in Hawaii. I read that the Polynesians survived and flourished in their new homes because they reserved space in their canoes for their 27 most important plants and 4 different animals. 

Recent carbon dating places these terrace walls at about 700 years old. The terraces were part of an agricultural system developed by the Hawaiians to grow taro, their most important crop and the staple food of the people today. Every part of the plant is edible when cooked. The Hawaiian name for family, ‘ohana, also comes from the plant because as the plant matures offshoots grow up in a circle around the parent plant.

Another plant that earned its place in the traveling canoes was ti because of its many uses. Its waxy leaves were used as a wrapper for storing and cooking food, making rain ponchos and sandals, and also as thatch for houses. Ti was considered sacred by the early Hawaiians and was an emblem of high rank and divine power. Its starchy root was also a food source.

Arrowroot was an original ingredient in a popular Hawaiian dessert and is also valued now by gourmet cooks.

Hawaiian kava, also introduced by the original inhabitants, is a medicinal beverage made from this plant’s roots which is said to heal sore muscles as well as being a sleep agent.

The uala or sweet potato, also brought as a food source by the Polynesians, rivaled taro as the most prominent staple food of the Hawaiian civilization. The plant actually originated in South America when Polynesian voyagers, no later than the 10th century, traveled across the Pacific and made contact with the indigenous people of what is now Chile. This was determined when archaeologists found DNA in 14th-century chicken bones that matched that of Polynesian chickens!

Paper mulberry was traditionally the main source of fiber used in bark-cloth production as it grows easily and sends up new plants from underground roots. It was known as tapa in Polynesia and kapa in Hawaii.

Kauai certainly earned its reputation that day as Hawaii’s wettest island when the mist turned to a drenching rain! Fortunately, we were able to seek refuge in a shelter for a while.

Though coconut palms are often thought to be native plants, they, too, were brought over by the Polynesians. One of the most important plants on their voyaging canoes, it apparently has more uses than any other tree in the world. The incredibly versatile plant provided shade, drink, furniture, roof thatching, mats, brooms, and food to early Hawaiians! Fishermen used the mesh-like fiber at the base of the leaf to hold chum for deep-sea fishing. The coconut shells were used as spoons, drinking cups, storage containers, and rain containers. If you’re ever on an episode of Survivor, remember that the oil from the meat of dried nuts is a good hair conditioner and skin lotion!

Did you know that long before sugar cane, known as ko to Hawaiians, was introduced as a commercial crop in the 1800s, it was considered important enough to be placed in the canoes of early Polynesian settlers? When it was planted near their homes, it was chewed for a snack, and children were encouraged to chew the fibrous stems to keep their teeth clean and healthy. Mature sugar cane in the winter forms silvery flower tassels which Hawaiians scattered on hillsides to create a slippery surface for Hawaiian-style sledding! “In more recent times, sugar cane made many fortunes, influenced politics, fueled the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and changed the face of the land.”

This lichen was as soft as a baby’s bottom!

Remember – clicking on any picture enlarges for a clearer view.

Something else brought over by the Polynesians was the candlenut tree whose inner kernels were roasted, skewered on a coconut frond, and set on fire to make a “candle” that would burn for about 45 minutes because of their 50% oil content. The state’s official state tree has become a symbol of knowledge and enlightenment in the Hawaiian culture. 

The Canoe Garden represented a particular period of time and highlighted Hawaii’s unique culture prior to contact with the outside world. Though Hawaiians still revere their past, contemporary Hawaiian culture has evolved and has been significantly influenced by the plants that were subsequently adopted into the culture during the plantation era. We learned the Plantation Garden represented what most visitors to the state think of: luscious pineapple, mango, and papaya, fragrant plumeria and gardenia, vibrantly colored orchids and birds of paradise. All these plants, however, were actually were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands from someplace else less than 200 years ago.

When James Cook moored off the islands in 1778, it marked the onset of huge changes to Hawaii’s culture and ecology. With the growth of sugar plantations from the mid-1800s to the next 1900s, immigrant workers arrived mostly from China, Portugal, Japan, and the Philippines. Many brought their favorite plants from home, planting them in their new gardens. Some of those plants have now become synonymous with Hawaii.

Dwarf poinciana, one of the flowering plants that were introduced, has since become important in lei-making traditions. 

Since plumeria was an early introduction to the state, it has become an iconic symbol of local culture. Many varieties of the flower are also used to string into fragrant lei.

Although not a good picture, another iconic symbol of Hawaii is this bird of paradise which came to Hawaii as an ornamental in the 19th century.

The mango tree was brought from India in the 1800s because of its delicious fruit which ripens in the summer. Since it escaped cultivation, it has become invasive so we could see them growing throughout Limahuli Garden. I never knew that mangos are in the same family as poison oak and poison ivy and that was why some people may develop a severe reaction after eating them.

The Limahuli Stream running through the Garden was one of the few virtually pristine streams remaining in Hawaii. Beginning at the top of the valley at a 3,330-foot elevation, it plummets over an 800-foot waterfall before reaching the valley floor and finally the ocean. The value of freshwater is seen in the Hawaiian language as wai translates to fresh water and waiwai means wealth. An ample supply of freshwater was critical to the prosperity of early Hawaiian settlers. Many unique animals and plants live in Limahuli Stream, including all five varieties of native Hawaiian freshwater fish. 

Near the stream was the Garden’s Archaeological Site as shown by a rock arrangement that may have been remnants of home sites built by the ancient Hawaiians. As I mentioned above, evidence suggests that the state was populated by two separate waves of migration from Polynesia, the first about 200 AD and the second around 1200-1300 AD.

The Native Forest Walk was a top-to-bottom recreation of a healthy Hawaiian mesic forest after a canopy of alien trees was removed in 2007 to provide more sunlight. Some of the rarest plants in the world were ‘outplanted’ in this section for the purposes of education and conservation. Many of these plants have fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the wild, and some fewer than 10.

The large, indigenous bird’s nest fern is just one of the reasons why a healthy Hawaiian forest retains and slowly releases water like a wet sponge.

Though Hawaiian palm species were once dominant, many are now on the verge of extinction because rats who were brought with the early Polynesians eat the seeds and severely impact the plant’s reproductive cycle. The loulou variety is the only palm genus native to Hawaii and has fan-shaped leaves compared to the feather-shaped leaves of the Polynesian-introduced coconut palm.

The yellow-flowered nehe was in the sunflower family and has medicinal properties. 

Towering above Limahuli Valley was Makana, the Hawaiian name given to the mountain commonly referred to as Bali Hai, the name made popular by the South Pacific movie. In ancient times, famous fire-throwing ceremonies were performed at Makana.

Due to wild goats, pigs, and deer, this recently discovered rare fern, Doryopteris angelica, was threatened in the wild. Only a few plants still remain in west Kauai.

Two species of papala were endemic to Kauai, and though they were once common, are now endangered. This small tree will reach about 20 feet when it matures. The tree was a favorite for the oahi or fire-burning ceremony because dried papala logs were hollow.

We took a short stroll through the Invasive Forest where not one plant was native which sadly was typical of many of Hawaii’s forests. Cattle grazing from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s greatly sped up the loss of native plants.

We’ve been lucky enough in all of our years of traveling to see lots of botanical gardens but I don’t remember seeing any plants that were ‘dotted’ like these ones! Unfortunately, however, the Chinese banyan or strangler fig is one of the worst invasive species in northwest Kauai.

The alua plant, endemic to Kauai and the neighboring island of Ni’ihau, has become the icon for the conservation movement in Hawaii even though, or because, it is now extinct in the wild and can only be viewed in cultivation. The fact that we were able to see it at Limahuli is because dedicated botanists rappelled down cliffs on Kauai’s Napali Coast for more than two decades to monitor the wild populations of the plants and collect some of the seeds. The plant has been described as looking like a cabbage atop a baseball bat!

One indigenous Hawaiian tree was the hala, part of the screwpine family in prehistoric times with fossils found in Siberia, Madagascar, Austria, and even England. It was only determined to be indigenous when a huge basaltic rock fell from a cliff near Hanalei Bay, split in half, revealing a preserved hala branch dating back 1.4 million years! The durable leaves were woven into sails by Polynesians for their canoes. Parts of the tree were also woven into mats, pillows, baskets, and flooring. 

At the highest part of the garden, we sat awhile admiring the stupendous mountain views in the distance.

Hawaii’s acacia koa was part of the 1,200 species of acacia trees, many of which are native to Australia. The large tree grows up to 100-feet and is often the dominant tree in dry to wet forests on all the state’s main islands. The many young acacia koa trees at Limahuli were propagated in the Garden’s nursery. In ancient times, the tree’s huge trunks were carved into canoes large enough to withstand the heavy wind and the ocean’s treacherous waves and strong currents. Hawaiian acacia species have two leaf forms on the same tree: one looking like a fern, and the other like a pod!

Another hala was so easy to recognize with its leaves seemingly bent in half!

Overlooking the terraced canoe garden where we’d started our tour at Limahuli:

Romantics would love the story of the indigenous naupaka shrub as its half flower is the source of a story of two separated lovers from long ago.

At the beginning of our walk, we’d sought shelter in this traditional Hawaiian hale or house which had been reconstructed in the footprint of an ancient Hawaiian housing complex. It was constructed of lashed waiawi or strawberry guava wood and thatched with loula, the native fan palm. Building this hale in 2013 was a cooperative effort with cultural elders that was deeply meaningful to present-day Hawaiians as it passed on the necessary knowledge to a new generation.

After looking at the photos and perhaps reading the notes above, I hope you got a sense of how highly we thought of Limahuli Garden & Preserve. We’ve subsequently gone to another National Tropical Botanical Garden and realized how spoiled we were by Limahuli. Not only was the Limahuli Valley scenery drop-dead gorgeous, but the many different gardens were also laid out in such a way it was easy to get from one to another, the signage was excellent for the various gardens and individual plants was spot on, and the plantings were of great interest to new visitors to Kauai like ourselves. The Canoe Garden was for me the most fascinating. I wonder what yours was?

Next post: All things Hanalei on Kauai.

Posted on April 3rd, 2022, from Kihei on the Hawaiian island of Maui. 


4 thoughts on “3/24/22: Kauai’s Canoe Plants @ Limahuli Garden & Preserve!

  1. Your forest walk reminded me of our time in the Costa Rica interior – some of the plants look very similar, as does the weather! I was so interested to read about the Polynesians bringing their most important plants with them in their canoes – very enterprising 🙂


  2. Glad you saw the similarities to your Costa Rican vacation with both the plants and weather! What impressed me most about Limahuli was also what caught your attention, namely the Polynesians having the foresight to bring over so many native plants to start their lives anew.


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