The Ti Plant Called Ki

by Dino Labiste



Over the vast, South Pacific Ocean came the double-hulled canoes, searching northward into an unknown sea. On these voyagining canoes were the Children of Tangaroa, Tane, Ti and Rongo. In search of new land, these Polynesian settlers, called Kanaka Maoli (The People), came upon a chain of islands. With them they brought various seeds, tubers and roots to plant in their new homeland, Hawai'i.

One of the introduced plants to Hawai'i by the early Polynesians was a tall, stalk with tightly clustered, green, oval and blade-shaped leaves. The leaf was about 4 inches wide and varied from 1 to 2 feet long. It was a fast growing woody plant that reached from 3 to 12 feet in height. The plant was Cordyline fruticosa. Known to the Hawaiians as Ki, it was a ti plant, a member of the lily family.

Ki was considered sacred to the Hawaiian god, Lono, and to the goddess of the hula, Laka. It was also an emblem of high rank and divine power. The kahili (ceremonial standard), in its early form, was a Ki stalk with its clustered foliage of glossy, green leaves at the top. The leaves were used by the kahuna priests in their ancient religious ceremonial rituals as protection to ward off evil spirits and to call in good.

There were many uses for the ti plant in old Hawai'i. The boiled roots were brewed into a potent liquor known as 'okolehao. The large, sweet starchy roots were baked and eaten as a dessert. This versatile plant also had many medicinal uses, either alone or as a wrapping for other herbs needing to be steamed or boiled. The ti leaves were wrapped around warm stones to serve as hot packs, used in poultices and applied to fevered brows. A drink from boiled green ti leaves were used to aid nerve and muscle relaxation. Steam from boiled young shoots and leaves made an effective decongestant. The pleasantly fragrant flowers were also used for asthma. Besides its use in healing practices, the large ti leaves became roof thatching, wrappings for cooking food, plates, cups, fishing lures on hukilau nets, woven into sandals, hula skirts, leis and rain capes.


The early Polynesians made a shingled ti leaf rain cape, called kui la'i, to protect them from the rain and cold. It was a form of portable ti leaf thatch that was tied to a net foundation and worn over the shoulders.


To construct a ti leaf rain cape, a fine netting was first woven. A cord was passed through the neck marginal meshes, knotted to the meshes at each end, and the cord ends left free for tying. The traditional netting for the cape in Old Hawai'i was made of olona (Touchardia latifolia) or hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) cordage.


Large ti leaves were gathered.


The midrib, or bone, from the center of the leaf was removed from each leaf. The ti leaves were then split in two halves.


The half-leaves were tied to the net mesh, starting at the bottom of the cape.


Another row of ti half-leaves were added on top of the bottom row until the layered rows reached the top of the cape.


The thatched ti leaves acted as a wick to drain the water down the cape. Also the heavy thatching insulated against the cold winds.


Over time, the constant use, the winds, and the elements shredded the ti leaves on the cape. The green leaves eventually turned brown. This did not diminish the practicality of the ti leaf rain cape.


The ti leaves ability to shed water come from it's semitransparent, protective surface called the cuticle. The leaf is covered by a waxy cuticle which keeps water outside and restricts evaporative water loss from the plant.
The many parallel veins, which provide strength, is another reason why the ti leaf is a good plant resource. Leaf veins are vascular bundles and have a fibrous bundle sheath. Vascular bundles are composed of xylem (a tissue having pipelines that conduct water and dissolved mineral ions), phloem (a tissue having pipelines which distribute dissolved sugars and other photosynthetic products), and fibers which support and protect the xylem and phloem. Fibers and vascular bundles in leaves are called fibrovascular bundles. The fibers and the xylem in fibrovascular bundles make ti leaves strong, thus the many uses of this versatile plant.



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