Skip to Content

The Canoe Plants of Hawaii

This post includes affiliate links. We may earn a small commission (at no cost to you), if you purchase through these links.

Canoe Plants are the 24 original plants the Polynesian voyagers brought to Hawaii centuries ago. They're an important (and delicious) part of modern Hawaii life.

A bundle of fresh ti leaves
Ti leaf

What Are Canoe Plants?

Do you know about the Hawaiian Canoe Plants? They are are an often overlooked part of Hawaii's history! Hawaiian Canoe Plants are important because it set the stage for many of the foods we grow and eat in modern day Hawaii.

Ok, so back up. The Polynesians voyaged to the Hawaiian Islands between 300 and 600 CE (no one knows the exact dates). They found Hawaii to be rich with all sorts of fish and seafood. There was clean and pure water. But there were not many plants and vegetables.

The solution? The Polynesians brought their own plants. The brought numerous plants to the Hawaiian islands, then planted and propagated them.

They're called "Canoe Plants" because the Polynesians brought these plants via big and gorgeous double-hulled canoes.

Canoe Plants versus Native Plants

So which plants are Canoe Plants and which are Native Hawaiian Plants? No one knows for sure.

Canoe Plants have been around for so long and have become such a key part of Hawaii's history culture that they're now often considered Native Hawaiian Plants (even though they are not technically native to Hawaii).

It's also believed that a few of the Canoe Plants that the Polynesians brought already existed in Hawaii. Niu (Coconut) is an example of this. This means that some of the Canoe Plants are actually native to Hawaii. But people don't know exactly which ones and how many.

24 Canoe Plants

The Polynesians brought many plants, and 24 of them have become a key part of our Hawaii life. Let's take a look at them here!

`Ape (Elephant Ears)

`Awa (Kava)

`Awapuhi Kuahiwi (Wild Ginger)

Hau (Hau)

Ipu (Gourd)

Leaves of the kalo (taro) plant
Leaves of the kalo (taro) plant

Kalo (Taro)

Kalo! Kalo is everything in Hawaii. Kalo is the taro plant.

The root of the taro plant is what gives us poi. If you steam and mash the taro root, you get pa‘i ‘ai. If you add water to pa‘i ‘ai, and thin it to a spoonable consistency, you get poi. And if you add coconut milk and sugar to poi, and then steam it some more, you'll be rewarded with the glorious Hawaiian dessert called kulolo.

The leaf of the taro plant is called a luau leaf. We use this leaf to make lau lau and luau stew. I LOVE luau leaf so much. You steam or stew the leaves for a long time until it become super tender and soaks up all the flavor from the meat and fish. Some people refer to luau leaf as Hawaii's version of collard greens.

Kamani (Alexandrian Laurel)

Luau leaf (from the kalo plant) in the middle. Ti leaf on the outside.
Luau leaf (from the kalo/taro plant) in the middle. Ti leaf on the outside.

Ki (Ti)

Ti is the name of the plant, and we use this plant mostly for the leaf, which we call the Ti Leaf. Ti Leaf has so many usages in Hawaii.

Ti leaf is use to make many popular styles of leis given at graduations, weddings, and birthdays. Ti leaf is also use as a tool to sprinkle holy water at blessings. And of course, we use ti leaf to make hula skirts!

Most importantly, we use it to cook. You can't actually eat the ti leaf itself, but it's used as a cooking and serving vessel. We wrap fresh pork and fish lau lau in ti leafs and then steam them till tender. Once ready, remove the ti leaf and eat with rice or poi! We also use ti leaf to prepare kalua pork in the imu (underground oven). You may also use ti leaf to line dish platters and present food.

Note: People often confuse Ti Leaf and Luau Leaf. This post helps to explain the difference between these two popular cooking leaves.

Ko (Sugar Cane)

Mmm fresh sugar cane juice! Several places in Chinatown have a sugar cane juicing machine and you can buy a cup of freshly pressed sugar cane juice to drink. It's super refreshing on hot days.

A lei made from kukui nuts and ti leaves
Lei made from kukui nuts and ti leaves

Kou Kukui (Candlenut)

We usually call these nuts, "kukui nuts." Kukui nut is a popular ingredient for making Ahi Poke. There are many different ways to make poke, but the classic Hawaiian-style poke features diced ahi tuna mixed with Hawaiian sea salt, inamona (kukui nuts which have been roasted, salted, and crushed), and ogo (seaweed). Because kukui nuts are not easy to find outside of Hawaii, people often substitute macadamia nuts.

Kukui nuts also have many non-edible uses. One popular use is stringing the shells to string beautiful kukui nut leis. Unlike fresh flower leis, these leis last for a long time (I still have one saved from my high school graduation).

Mai`a (Banana)

Two words: banana bread!

Local bananas are delicious. And good thing, because all of Hawaii is crazy about banana bread. People make it at home, people buy it at the bakery. There's even places that are famous for banana bread (like the banana bread lady on the road to Hana in Maui). Banana bread post coming soon!

Milo (Portia Tree)

Niu (Coconut)

Coconut trees abound in Hawaii and lucky for us, because they are delicious.

Buy fresh young coconut and drink the coconut water...there is nothing more refreshing that this! I usually find the young coconut at local farmers markets or in Chinatown.

You can also purchase fresh coconut at supermarkets like Foodland and Whole Foods Hawaii. Scrape/spoon out the coconut meat and eat plain. So good! And if you're really lucky, you'll find a coconut that has "Queens Bread." What is the Queen's Bread? It's a spongy white orb that sits in the center of a sprouted coconut. It's almost cotton candy in texture and very delicate. It is a rare treat.

We use coconut milk in many dishes like haupia and coconut-based curries. Coconut milk also makes an amazing smoothie ingredient...the possibilities are endless.

Noni (Indian Mulberry)

`Ohe (Bamboo)

`Ohi`a `Ai (Mountain Apple)

`Olena (Turmeric)

Turmeric got so trendy in mainstream food media over the last decade, but we've been eating turmeric in Hawaii for so long! Visit any of our local Farmers Market (I usually visit the KCC Farmers Market, Kailua Farmers Market, and Kaka'ako Farmers Market) and you'll find fresh turmeric for sale by the pound. Clean, peel, and get cooking. I'll try post some turmeric recipes soon ^_^

Fun tidbit, there's a takeout spot on Oahu I love called ‘Ōlena by Chef Ron Simon. It's owned by Chef Ron and his wife Rose. They named it ‘Ōlena because they wanted to focus on local cooking and healthy cooking. The food at ‘Ōlena is wonderful. It's also right near the Honolulu airport, so make sure to stop by on your way to/from the airport.

Olona Pia (Polynesian Arrowroot)

Purple sweet potato
Purple sweet potato

`Uala (Sweet Potato)

Oh, sweet potato! We love sweet potato so much I have a whole post devoted to the Hawaiian Sweet Potato.

My grandma loves to steam the sweet potatoes. Eat them hot for breakfast, with cup of tea on the side. It's comforting, and also just really good for you.

My mom loves to make purple sweet potato tapioca. We put sweet potato in lau lau. You can find sweet potato mochi. And even sweet potato croquettes! We love to layer steamed and mashed sweet potato to make sweet potato-haupia bars. And don't forget sweet potato manju.

Uhi (Yam)

`Ulu (Breadfruit)

Ulu is so popular nowadays. My dad's old office had a big ulu tree so my grandpa would bring home tons of ulu but we didn't know how to cook with ulu. So we shared them with neighbors (and I hope they were able to prepare something tasty with it). Ulu was always just there and we never thought too much about it.

But then a few years ago, local chefs started making ulu really popular and now you'll find everything from ulu macaroni salad (from Tin Roof Maui), to ulu fries, ulu tacos, and mashed ulu (like mashed potatoes, but mashed ulu). Ulu is officially a "hip" ingredient! So now when we get ulu, we have better idea of how to cook with it...we make ulu chips and ulu mochi. We can steam ulu, bake ulu. There is much to learn.

Wauke (Paper Mulberry)

← Previous
Yang Chow Fried Rice
Next →
Pork Hash
Mahalo for Reading!

Brent

Saturday 22nd of August 2020

Kathy, have you ever gotten a Queen's bread from a coconut you purchased at the store or farmers market? I first heard of it on Ed Kenney's PBS show but have never actually seen or eaten myself.

Kathy

Sunday 23rd of August 2020

Hi Brent! Yes! I've found it at Foodland (Ala Moana location) on several occasions. It's a hit or miss, but I always stop to check when I'm at Ala Moana ^_^ - Kathy