Notes on Propagating Traditional Hawaiian Plants

This page gathers together some information on how to start growing some of the plants Hawaiians traditionally used for food and other purposes.

These plants are often called “canoe plants” because Hawaiians brought them from southern Polynesia on their voyaging canoes, and Oceanic voyagers originally transported many of them from Southeast Asia — although they collected ‘uala from South America, and several of the canoe plants, such as ‘awa and perhaps kalo and mai‘a, originated in the southwestern Pacific. However, olonā is not really a canoe plant, because it is native and endemic to Hawai‘i, and hala is indigenous and found throughout the Pacific, though different varieties may have been transported. Some people think that kukui may be indigenous as well.

Most of the information comes from Lynton Dove White’s great Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i website, and from two series of publications available from The Traditional Tree Initiative, and Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry. These series also cover many other plants you can grow in Hawai‘i. Some other good sites for learning about how to grow more Hawaiian plants are Kamehameha Schools’ Nā Mea Kanu o Kamehameha, CTAHR’s Native Hawaiian Plant Propagation Database. and the Native Plants Hawai‘i (NPH) project from Kapiʻolani and Leeward Community Colleges (KCC & LCC).

Each plant listing includes its scientific Latin binomial name, followed by the botanical family in parentheses linked to a description on Dr. Gerry Carr’s UH website, from which most of the images are taken.

Traditional Hawaiian Plants

‘ape (elephant ear)
‘awa (kava)
‘awapuhi (shampoo ginger)
hala (pandanus)
ipu (gourd)
kalo (taro)
(sugar cane)
kukui (candlenut)
mai‘a (banana)
niu (coconut)
‘ohe (bamboo)
‘ōhi‘a ‘ai (mountain apple)
‘ōlena (turmeric)
pia (Polynesian arrowroot)
‘uala (sweet potato)
uhi (yam)
‘ulu (breadfruit)
wauke (paper mulberry)

‘ape (elephant ear) — Alocasia macrorrhiza (Araceae)

From Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry:
Giant taro is easily propagated by cormlets or suckers. In Wallis, the underground lateral suckers (mata kape) are used. In Tonga, the preference is for large suckers; in times of shortage, cormlets are used and their location in the field is marked by a coconut frond. Suckers are planted in holes 15–25 cm deep while cormlets are planted in shallower 8–15 cm holes. Fertilizers are seldom used. In Wallis, humus, ash and decomposed leaves are mixed into the soil before planting. There is little attempt to control insects or mealy bugs. Fungal diseases are likely if the soil is too wet or infertile.

‘awa (kava) — Piper methysticum (Piperaceae)

From Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry:
The main requirement for cultivation of new kava plants is to use freshly harvested stems exposed to a moist but well-drained, pathogen-free environment. Although commercial rooting preparations such as hormones may enhance root production, their use is not necessary.

Kava propagates readily from mature, freshly harvested entire stems or 1–4 node sections of stems. Stem sections should be severed very close to a node to minimize rotting. Stem sections having two or more nodes may survive and withstand rot better than sections of only a single stem node. Place the stem sections into a planting bed horizontally with the new leaf buds uncovered and facing the sunlight. Whole kava stems may also be planted directly or allowed to develop some roots and new shoots and then cut into smaller plantlets.

‘awapuhi (shampoo ginger) Zingiber zerumbet (Zingiberaceae)


Note: today this is often called ‘awapuhi kuahiwi to distinguish it from other gingers which have been more recently introduced.

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
This plant can easily be cultivated in home gardens. A patch in my Hana garden kept me supplied with hair conditioner and body lotion during the summers. If you are considering growing it in your garden, be sure to allow a large area. The ‘awapuhi tend to form thick stands, following their large underground stems horizontally, just under the earth’s surface. ‘Awapuhi kuahiwi is best propagated in autumn by planting a piece of rootstock with buds, in a shallow trench of broken and composted soil.

halaPandanus tectorius (Pandanaceae)

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
The tree is mainly grown from branch cuttings, as plants de­rived from seeds do not usually reproduce the same qualities of the parental plant. Numerous cultivated traditional vari­eties (or clones) exist on atolls; most have been selected for their superior edible fruit qualities and are propagated from cuttings. The wild varieties reproduce from seed in their na­tive habitats and are preferred for timber due to their longer, straighter boles.

From Hawaiian Native Plant Propagation Database:
In Hawai’i, traditionally, Pandanus tectorius was generally propagated by seed. To speed germination, soak the keys in cool tap water for 5 days, changing the water every day. Viable Pandanus keys will float, so do not discard them. NTBG suggests planting the keys in sterile potting mix at a depth of two times their diameter; Bornhorst recommends removing the fleshy part of the key, laying it on the planting medium, and burying it half way. Keep the potting mix moist. Germination takes about 2 months.

Pandanus tectorius can be grown from large cuttings. In Micronesia, selected forms of Pandanus tectorius are propagated by stem cuttings. Plants with aerial or prop roots are selected and about 2/3 of the leaves are trimmed off to reduce water loss. Moriarty suggests using a mature branch with leaves and some small aerial roots and rooting it in a sand bed. Plants grown from cuttings fruit in 4 to 6 years.

hauHibiscus tiliaceus (Malvaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
In home gardens, hau is propagated from cuttings, and the trunks can be trained to create a garden shelter or arbor called a lanai hau. This plant is also grown as a natural fence barrier.

ipu (gourd) — Lageneria siceraria (Cucurbitaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
A climbing vine, ipu is traditionally planted after the rainy season, during the Hua moon phase, 3-4 days before the full moon. The word hua means fruit. During the flowering stage, when male and female flowers are present, hand pollination is necessary, usually at dusk or night, when the flowers bloom. The flowers are single, small (1 1/12 inches long) and white. Wide-spreading vines with downy, branched tendrils bear rounded heart-shaped hairy leaves. The leaves are 5 lobed and from 4 to 16 inches in diameter. As the vine grows, it needs support, such as a rock wall, a tree, or home-made trellis. During the 6-9 months that the ipu fruit takes to mature, they must be carefully tended and protected from stinging and biting insects that like to lay their eggs in the young developing fruit. Coverings of mosquito netting are one way of dealing with this problem. To prevent mold, supports are used to suspend the fruit and mounds of grass or straw are placed beneath the gourd where it contacts the earth. Sometimes green, sometimes white or mottled, the gourds vary in shape and size, according to their variety. They can also be shaped by wrapping or tying them with cord, while they are maturing. Soft and sometimes hairy, the immature fruit becomes smooth as it matures. More varieties have been grown in Hawai‘i than elsewhere in Polynesia.

A sunny site on the leeward side, below the 1500 foot elevation, is the best growing place for ipu, although adequate rainfall or irrigation, good drainage and shelter from the wind are all necessary ingredients for fruitful growth. Less water is needed in the last few months of growth. A loamy, sandy soil with crushed lava is best, and of course, lots of room for the spreading vines. To produce the most gourds from each plant, the central vine is cut off at 8-10 feet or earlier, to stimulate extending branches with more female blossoms.

kalo (taro) — Colocasia esculenta (Araceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
In planting both wetland and dryland taro, the huli, the planting material, consists of a 1/2 inch thick slice of the top of the kalo (corm, from which derives the plant’s name) attached to 6 to 10 inches of the leaf-stem. These protrude above the water or dryland where planted.

From Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry:
The planting materials are either setts or cormels. In most of the Pacific island countries, setts are prepared from mature corms and consist of the top 1 cm of the corm and about 20–50 cm of the petiole. Setts are also made from suckers in a similar fashion. Larger setts are preferred as they produce larger yields. Setts should be planted within a week of harvesting. All dead leaves and outer petiole bases should be removed, trimming to a new leaf inside.

A cormel is a small, immature corm produced by a more mature main or mother corm. Cormels or sucker corms are also used as planting material. For example, among the Maring cormels are the main propagative material used for planting dryland taro.

From CTAHR Farmers’ Bookshelf:
Planting materials called "huli" (sets) are prepared from suckers or main plants. These consist of the upper 1/8-1/4-inch section of the corms or cormels and the first 10-12 inches of the petioles.

kamaniCalophyllum inophyllum (Clusiaceae / Guttiferae)

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
Kamani is moderately easy to propagate by seed, and local seed sources are easily found in the Pacific Islands. Germination and initial growth is slow, however, and seedlings should be started 6 months before they are required. Once outplanted, seedlings are hardy but slow growing. They prefer full sun and tolerate wind, salt spray, and drought.

(ti) — Cordyline fruticosa (Agavaceae / Asparagaceae )

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
New plants propagate easily from cuttings and grow best where sunlight and moisture are both available. The stem cutting can be planted vertically for one plant, or horizontally for several.

(sugar cane) — Saccharum officinarum (Poaceae / Gramineae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
To propagate, plant sections of the mature upper portion of the stalk, using those pieces that have several nodes on them. Each node will create a new stalk. Dig a trench 6-8 inches deep and plant an 8-12 inch section sideways in the earth. Kō likes a lot of sunshine and also moisture, and whenever possible, a rich soil. Traditionally, sugar cane was planted in November-December.

kouCordia subcordata (Boraginaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
This plant grows easily and quickly from seed, preferring sunny warm coastal lowlands in the islands’ leeward areas. It was cultivated near settlements, and is only occasionally found in the wild forests.

kukui (candlenut) — Aleurites moluccana (Euphorbiaceae)

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
Propagation of kukui seedlings is easily done by seed. Although the seeds can take up to 3–4 months to germinate, they are large and quickly grow into strong, stout seedlings ready for field planting. Seedlings are not finicky about growing location (tolerating sun or partial shade), nor do they require special growing medium or watering regimes. Due to the quick growth of germinating seeds into seedlings, seeds lend themselves to either being direct-seeded in the field or pregerminated in the nursery, then direct-seeded. Kukui can also be propagated by cuttings, but this is uncommon and may not yield a plant that grows as vigorously as a seedling.

mai‘a (banana) — Musa x paradisiaca (Musaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
New plants develop quickly from underground stems, usually forming clumps of plants. The new plants are called keiki, children. The mai‘a rhizome puts forth pohuli, suckers. Cutting out and transplanting excess pohuli helps to promote fruit production. Keeping two keiki per parent plant seems to work out best. The Hawai‘i way is to give extra plants to a friend’s garden or to plant them in the wild for times of scarcity. Traditionally, mai‘a was planted in clumps around the taro lo‘i, pond fields, as well as near dwelling sites.

From Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry:
Bananas are usually propagated from suckers and bits (pieces of corms with attached growing points), but export-type commercial plantings more commonly use tissue-cultured plantlets. In the Pacific, very large suckers are the normal planting material and are usually established once the wet season has begun. Vigorous young suckers that still have narrow leaves (“sword suckers”) are preferred and are dug from existing plantings using a sharp tool such as a narrow bladed shovel.

miloThespesia populnea (Malvaceae)

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
Milo is generally propagated by seed, although it can also be propagated by stem and root cuttings and by air-layering. Seeds are usually plentiful and initial growth is fast, making milo a relatively easy tree to grow. Containers need to be deep enough to contain the vigorous taproot without allowing it to spiral.

From Hawaiian Native Plant Propagation Database:
The seeds should be scarified (the seed coat penetrated). This can be done using sandpaper, nail clippers, or by cracking with a hammer. Care must be taken to avoid damaging the inner part of the seed. The seeds do not require soaking. The seeds should be planted in sterile potting mix at a depth of about twice the diameter of the seed. Germination takes 14 to 28 days.

niu (coconut) — Cocos nucifera (Arecaceae / Palmae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Propagation is by planting the whole coconut, usually at its growing site. It is easy to determine the top of the nut by floating it in water. Plant it with this side up, partially cover and keep moist. Germination occurs in four to five months.

If the coconut is to be transplanted, germination should be atop wide screening or loose rocks to prevent the roots from taking hold. The plant should be moved before it is a foot high. The plant responds well to organic fertilization and mulching, particularly as it later begins to bear.

From Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry:
Coconuts are propagated solely by seed. The seednut has no dormancy and requires no special treatment to germinate. However, germination speed of seednuts varies within and among ecotypes and varieties. Some Tall varieties (e.g., Malayan Talls) germinate while still on the palm, while others like the West African Tall and most Pacific populations take up to 6 weeks.

noniMorinda citrifolia (Rubiaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Cultivation is either by seed or cutting.

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
Noni is relatively easy to propagate from seeds, stem or root cuttings, and air-layering. The preferred methods of propagation are by seed and by cuttings made from stem verticals.

‘ohe (bamboo) — Schizostachyum glaucifolium, Bambusa vulgaris (Poaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Bamboo grows in clumps of culms called sympodial, the term for tropical bamboo that grows directly from the parent, where the culm and rhizome are one. Other kinds of bamboo have a single free-standing culm and are called monopodial, which means they grow out of a rhizome that travels fast and far underground.

More info from Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry.

‘ōhi‘a ‘ai (mountain apple) — Syzygium malaccense ( Myrtaceae )

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
The seeds germinate well, and many can usually be found sprouting under their parent tree. While seed propagation is common, air-layering has been successfully used, and cuttings have been rooted in sand in Hawai‘i. These vegetative methods of reproduction are used especially on high yielding individuals. Some people prefer to graft superior varieties onto seedling stocks.

‘ōlena (turmeric) — Curcuma longa (Zingiberaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
If you wish to cultivate ‘ōlena in your garden, remember that this plant likes rich soil, some shade and plenty of water. After the rhizomes are planted, ‘ōlena hides in the garden for three or more months. In addition, this plant is usually dormant from about September to March, but the roots do survive and will revive to come up with green leaves once again.

olonāTouchardia latifolia (Urticaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Propagation is from rooted stem cuttings, root shoots and occasionally from seeds, all of which were thickly planted in previously cleared areas. Although seldom cultivated these days, in ancient Hawai‘i olonā was widely cultivated in very wet interior valleys upland.

Some olonā plantation patches were as large as two to three acres. The cuttings were planted close together to encourage straight unbranched stems. The few branches that did grow were removed regularly. In a year’s time the plants were mature enough to harvest. They were 6 to 10 feet tall, and the bark could be easily stripped at this young age.

pia (Polynesian arrowroot) — Tacca leontopetaloides (Taccaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
To propagate pia, plant the tuber in a hole, near the end of the rainy season. The best time to harvest the tubers is when the leaves are dry and yellowing. Pia’s leaves die in winter, while the underground tubers remain dormant until springtime. In the spring, the slender, finely grooved leafstalks are sent up 1 to 3 feet high, with broad leaves, similar in appearance to papaya leaves — divided, with many lobes. These are 1 to 2 feet wide.

‘uala (sweet potato) — Ipomoea batatas (Convolvulaceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Propagation is from stem cuttings or slips, not from the tubers. the 6-9 inch slips are planted about a foot apart, preferably in mounds, pu‘e, or ridges, allowing the vines to trail off outside the beds. It is a good idea to plant ‘uala near the periphery of a garden, as the plants tend to take over the area in which they grow, and to wander on and on. The vines make a lovely ground cover in any event.

In planting, the older vines are used, with the cuttings being vine ends broken off from 10-20 inches from the tip. Gather these in the evening, not in the heat of the day. Pluck all leaves off except for three or four at the end, being careful to leave the leaf bud at the tip. Planting can be the next day, or even several days later, if the slips are kept moist, such as in a bucket of water. Root buds may begin to appear during this time.

uhi (yam) — Dioscorea alata (Dioscoreaceae)

Dioscorea alata
From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Uhi is a vine that grows for support on tree trunks and branches in moist forests and gulches. It is also grown upon stakes and other supports. The vine grows during summertime and withers away in the winter, while the large edible tubers continue to grow underground. New vine shoots appear at the beginning of the spring rainy season, which is the best time to dig up the yams to eat. It takes a full year’s cycle to grow a crop. For food to be produced, the plants need a warm moist growing place with loose soil, and can be planted anytime of the year by propagation from pieces of the tuber, which will bear sprouts.

‘ulu (breadfruit) — Artocarpus altilis (Moraceae)

From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawai‘i:
Breadfruit is propagated from shoots growing from the roots or from one inch diameter root cuttings, 9 to 10 inches long. These can be placed in a shaded bed until a 2-3 foot top has grown. The ‘ulu plant grows an extensive root system, so it is best to plant it where it will have plenty of room to stretch out and also up! It does not transplant easily. Trees begin to bear five to seven years after planting the root shoot.
From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
Breadfruit is easy to propagate from root shoots or root cuttings, by air-layering branches, or from seeds. Breadfruit can also be grafted using various techniques. Stem cuttings are not used. Seeds are rarely grown because they do not develop true to type. Vegetative propagation is a must for seedless varieties, and root shoots or root cuttings are the preferred methods for both seeded and seedless varieties.

wauke (paper mulberry) — Broussonetia papyrifera (Moraceae)

From The Traditional Tree Initiative:
Root shoots (suckers), cut matted roots, stem cuttings, or sections of “second growth” stems are used for propagation.

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