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Ethnobotany in Halawa Valley

04-30-2019

By Lucy Marcus, Expedition Guide

Imagine being one of the first people arriving in the Hawaiian Islands, sailing on double-hulled canoes, carrying all you need to start a new life on the islands. Voyagers from the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti did not know what they would encounter in the new lands they would call home, so they carried their most important food, medicine, plants, and animals to start a new life. Among the items they carried were coconuts, banana corms, roots of taro, as well as pigs, chickens, and dogs.

The river valleys were the best places to inhabit because the flow of water fed the taro fields that were the main food source for the Polynesian voyagers. Recently, archeologists discovered the oldest fire pit in all of the Hawaiian Islands, on the beach of Halawa Valley on Molokai. This is the valley that we spend a day exploring, hiking beside a clear river, up to a towering waterfall. Along the hike, and with the cultural hosts at the base shelter, we learn about the plants carried in on the first canoes that were most useful to the early Hawaiians.

Kukui nuts, originally from Malaysia, were carried to Hawaii by early voyagers because of their many useful properties as food and medicine as well as for fishing. The planted nuts grow to a mid-size tree, with maple-shaped leaves, which produce prolific walnut sized nuts covered in a soft green outer pod.

Kukui nuts, also called candle nuts, have high levels of oil and were strung along the mid-ribs of palm leaves into a row and lit on fire to produce a small flame that burns like a candle. These rows of burning candlenuts provided light for the ancient Hawaiians in their homes at night.

Hawaiians today still enjoy using kukui nuts for food. They roast them in the shell, remove the inner nuts, and crush the toasted nut into coarse crumbs and mix with sea salt. This rich nutty mixture, called inamoma, is used to sprinkle on food, adding delicious flavoring to dishes like poke (raw tuna salad) and grilled fish. Guests who go to the cultural talk in Halawa Valley on Molokai get to taste this delicious inamoma mixture which is made by our Halawa Valley hosts, from kukui nuts grown in the forest around the river. Other guests who hike to the waterfall walk through stands of kukui trees, which litter the forest floor with numerous hard-shelled nuts.

We learn from our hosts that the kukui nuts, which are strung into leis, or necklaces, represent light, so wearing a kukui nut lei symbolizes being surrounded by a circle of light. The person who wears a kukui nut lei; a ring of light, represents what it is to be honorable, kind, loving and friendly.

Kukui nuts also have medicinal properties, and the oil from these nuts can help cure skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and rashes. When growing on the tree, kukui nuts have a soft green outer pod, and the sap from these pods can be used to alleviate mouth sores, thrush, canker sores, and teething pain in babies. One needs to use a little caution when eating roasted kukui nuts themselves, as they can be used as a laxative, so best to only eat one or two!

Ancient Hawaiian fishermen would grind up kukui nuts and throw handfuls of the nut powder across shallow areas of water where they wanted to fish. The oils from the nuts would smooth out the waves and ripples, allowing the fishermen to clearly see into the water so they could accurately spear the fish below. Kukui nuts are useful in so many ways, you can understand why the early voyagers brought them on the canoes to grow new trees for future generations. It’s a treat to learn about them where they grow when we visit the lush rainforest of Halawa valley in Molokai.

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