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HAWAIIAN USES OF SUGARCANE

Food
Medicine
Religious Ceremonies
Love Magic
Resource
‘ŌLELO NŌ‘EAU
  • Food
  • Medicine
  • Religious Ceremonies
  • Love Magic
  • Sorcery
  • Tattoos
  • Resources
  • ‘Ōlelo Nō‘eau

Food

In the past sugar was enjoyed much as it is today, and the chief purpose was as a food or food additive. Cuttings were convenient to carry on a journey and chew for quick energy or be prepared from the plant instantly for an easy snack while working in the fields. Of course, children especially enjoyed this treat, and the behavior was encouraged, as chewing the tough fibers and pulp was said to strengthen the gums and teeth. While sugarcane hardly qualifies as an important food from a nutritional standpoint, it is referred to as a "lifesaver" in times of famine. The extracted juice can be used to sweeten foods such as haupia, a coconut pudding, and kūlolo, a taro-based dessert. The sugar-water was cooked over an open fire and fed to nursing babies, sometimes considered the only solution for an ill child. Some types of food require specific varieties. For instance, only the canes with the darkest flesh should be used to stir and sweeten ‘awa. Such as 'Halāli‘i,' which was used by Kaumua‘ali‘i of Kauai to mix the pūpū ‘awa upon meeting with Kamehameha. Traditionally, the liquid was extracted by pounding the pith to soften the fibers, then twisting and squeezing out the juice into a vessel. The most popular method of eating cane, though, was simply to chew on the raw stalk, extracting the juice by crushing the fibers with one's teeth.

Medicine

The most widely applied medicinal use of sugarcane is to sweeten bitter-tasting medication. Many say that for this purpose only 'Kea' or 'Opukea' was traditionally used. Perhaps this is because these canes have the whitest flesh and therefore the purest juice (although 'Kea' is also considered the most ancient of the Hawaiian canes and may relate to this usage). For instance, the fruit of the noni is used to expel the placenta after birth, and 'Kea' is used to wash it down. 'Kea' can be used to sweeten a range of medicines, such as the ‘apu kowali or ‘apu la‘au ho‘onahā used as purgatives or the ‘apu ho‘omomona used to combat thinness and lack of energy.

 

In addition to sweetening bitter-tasting medicines, cane juice is an active ingredient in curative formulas. The most popular application was for deep cuts, the sugar crystals dry out a wound and prevent the growth of infection-causing bacteria. A short story is related in Fornander about using sugarcane as a mixture to form a salve or ointment:

 

This cane was discovered by Kulua and Paiaalani. While Kulua was lying very sick with chills and with sores covering his body, Paiaalani came to him and asked, “Why are you lying in the house these days and not going out? … That disease is easily cured if you will get that cane called Uleohiu; boil it in hot water, drink some, rub some on your skin, and you will be cured.

 

Sugarcane varieties are said to vary in their therapeutic properties. Kahuna hāhā, who diagnose and treat sicknesses and pain, considered 'Kea', 'Honua‘ula', 'Lahi', and '‘Ainakea' the best for medicinal purposes. 'Lahi' is the primary variety used in diagnostics, in which ritualistic practices and movements utilizing the cane are used to divine the ailment of patients and the potential outcome of treatments. One text indicates one such protocol:

 

The sugar cane [stalk] was pulled apart (‘ume) by the kahuna and examined. If the overripe part (kō pala) of the sugar cane was in the left hand and the healthier part (kō maika‘i) in the right, then the kahuna deemed the patient to be ‘alive.’ However, if the opposite occurred, then the patient was deemed ‘dead.’

 

All varieties are used by various practitioners, with some favored over others in particular lineages of practice or specific districts. For instance, some lapa‘au practitioners use 'Manulele,' although kahuna hāhā will not. Other times, distinct varieties of cane are necessitated, often for their religious significance. '‘Ele‘ele' or 'Māikoiko' were the only cane varieties used for treatments of tuberculosis. Most say that it is okay to substitute a similar variety if the cane of choice cannot be found, a popular example being using 'Pāpa‘a' in place of 'Honau‘ula.' Canes are used in mixtures to treat asthma, deep lacerations, sprains, pain/shock, illness of a weak heart, running sores, thrush, and gonorrhea, in addition to native illnesses such as make uila wale and pā‘ao‘ao. Concoctions will utilize specific parts of the cane plant. The very young buds of sugarcane are the most common ingredient, but occasionally a tincture will call for the juice, the leaves, or even the roots.

Many treatments require purgatives. An "opening," or a total purging (emetic, purgative and enema), is often administered to prepare a patient for the positive effects of medicines to follow. Purgatives are used to treat cramps, stomach ailments, and other more severe diseases. A typical purgative mixture includes the pounded kowali (Ipomoea indica) root, raw eggs, mashed kukui nuts, noni fruit, and the juice of the sugarcane. can be used alone as an emetic in large quantities; however, it is typically combined with other ingredients.

The very young buds are a good medicine for pouring on deep cuts and wounds. One such recipe calls for four young buds, two kowali pehu vines, and one-quarter ‘apu (coconut-shell cup) of pa‘akai (sea salt). The ingredients are pounded into a fine mash and bundled up inside of leaves and broiled until cooked. The resultant salve can be applied to wounds, fractures, and internal injuries as well. This medicine is to hasten the healing process but also to reduce the formation of scars.

 

The stalks of the sugarcane are used to treat a range of infections. A medicine concocted for the treatment of hilo or waikī uses four segments of '‘Ainakea' and the meat from one ripe coconut. These are mashed, strained, and mixed with the slimy sap of the hau ka‘eka‘e (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and applied to the genitalia before and after urination. A similar concoction was made with 'Pale ‘Ōpua' to cure the female version of the sickness, kohepopo.

Sugarcane was often used in pregnancy, both in topically applied salves and lubricants, and ingested concoctions. 'Māikoiko' is the most commonly used cane in childbirth. Sugarcane juice can be used to keep the mother energized and mixed with other concoctions to induce labor. Sugarcane juice is also a key ingredient, along with the slimy sap of the hau ka‘eka‘e and other plants, in the lubricating liquids made to help with delivery. was also often used in post-natal treatments, such as to increase mothers' supply of milk. One such treatment is ‘apu ho‘opa‘a, which uses juice from aerial roots of the hala, juice from the stalks of the sugarcane, and several drops of sap from the flower of 'Iholena' banana all mixed with mashed ‘uala.

 

Wai kō (sugarcane juice) was particularly prevalent in treating infants. Warm, toasted wai kō was said to be the saving grace of young babies when nothing else would work. The warmed juice of 'Honua‘ula' is supposed to be the only cure for infants who have contracted make uila wale.

Religious Ceremonies

Medicine in Hawaiian culture is spiritual as well as physical. Many physical ailments are believed to be manifestations of poor mental or spiritual health. For instance, the psychological stress of a sinful act, such as theft, could lead to physical sickness. Sugarcane is one of the central representative plants of the kahuna hāhā, or diagnostic professionals, involved with several ritualistic ceremonies for diagnosing and healing sick individuals. Similarly, is used as the pani, or closing food, to most healing rituals.

Many ceremonies, religious offerings, and formal events make use of . Offerings of to akua were commonplace, with specific varieties favored. Fishermen typically offer 'Halāli‘i' on ko‘a shrines. On the days of each month set aside for the worship of Kāne, offerings of 'Halāli‘i' along with two fish, aku (Katsuwonus pelamis) and ‘ōpelu (Decapterus pinnulatus), are made on stone altars outside of the home. The famed bird catchers of Hawai‘i, who acquired the feathers used to make the royal cloaks and insignia, similarly used this sugarcane as an offering to Kū upon snaring their first bird of each season. 'Honua‘ula' is used when offering ‘awa to patron sharks. Other ceremonies were flexible in the required variety. For the dedication of particular heiau, any red-colored cane would suffice.

 

When used in ceremonial ways, the sugarcane variety may take on the name of the ceremony. The onset of special training involves a tradition known as Pailolo, in which students "rouse the brains," and the graduation is known as ‘Ailolo, called so because the students had "eaten the brains" to feed their minds. This reference is both figurative to the learning accomplished, but also literal; during the ceremony, participants eat the head, particularly the brains, of a fish offered to the gods. Ukuhala refers to a penalty for wrongdoings and services conducted in the remissions of sins, and Wehehala means to remove a personal transgression by prayer.  varieties such as 'Halāli‘i' and 'Pakaweli' are used in these ceremonies,  both as a central spiritual tool and as food to seal the event. The names of these services are often referenced as synonyms to the cane varieties, meaning 'Pakaweli' may be referred to as 'Pailolo' as an alternative name.

Sugarcane was traditionally present in some of the most kapu ceremonies, such as ceremonies to adorn images of akua with feathers or kapa cloth. For these rituals, 'Kauila' was often used. Sugarcane is also the preferred tool for mixing ceremonial ‘awa, for which the dark-fleshed varieties such as 'Pāpa'a,' '‘Ula,' '‘Āwela,' and '‘Uala' are required. For this purpose, the rind is removed, except for one end that is left as a handle to grasp the cane.

Love Magic

A distinctive and unique use of some varieties is for hana aloha, in which a kahuna hana aloha influences love affairs. A person desiring to gain the heart of another can request the ritual. The person desirous of love eats sugarcane after the kahuna has dedicated the cane to Makakanikeoe, the love god. Then the person blows in the direction of the desired person. The god, in his wind form, bears the prayer's mana along on the breeze, and when it touches the one desired he or she becomes very much in love with the sender. Fornander relates this concept in his description of 'Manulele':

 

The reason it for calling it Manulele is because of a man with a woman. They lived peaceably as husband and wife, but after some time there grew up in one of them the desire to go astray, thus bringing about discord, and the husband, or perhaps the wife, is taken by another. The one remaining would still be very much in love, trying various ways to occupy his mind, thinking this addiction would soon pass away, but no – it would not cease. Then after a while someone who knows how to intensify love is heard of and is sent for, and upon his arrival the kahuna would ask, ‘What ails you?’ The man would respond, ‘the love of wife, that is why I am ailing, I do not desire food, I was fond of food and fish when living with my wife, but at this time we are contending together, I do not care for food.’ The kahuna would say, ‘that is a sickness easily cured if I should treat you.’ The sick man would say, ‘suppose then you treat me.’ ‘All right,’ the kahuna would say. Then he would get his cane and would explain, ‘this cane is Manulele (flying bird); her love will fly to you, she will cease her wanderings until the two of you are parted by death.’

 

As indicated by this story, 'Manulele' was the most prevalent cane used in the practice of hana aloha. This cane is used specifically to induce a distant person to fall in love. The "flying bird" gives wings to the prayer laden with the power to induce love or yearning in a distant victim. When the cane is prayed over, it is referred to as 'Kā‘awe' or 'Kā‘awe ‘ā‘ī.' The desire for specific types of affairs warrants the usage of different canes: 'Pāpa‘a', meaning to "hold fast," is used to strengthen existing relationships or to create a lifelong bond; 'Pilimai,' meaning "come this way," is used for short, temporary affairs; and 'Lahi,' of which little is known. Other sources also indicate that 'Honua‘ula' is rarely used, with its specific application being similar to that of 'Manulele,' perhaps because the canes are reported to be mutants of each other. Some of the spells involve a love potion taken to the desired person, while others are conducted through ritual. Mary Kawena Pukui relates how one such ceremony was done:

 

While no potion was actually brewed, the charm could be successful only if three specific kinds of cane were used: the Manulele, or flying bird, which would make the love of the recipient fly out to the sender; the Pilimai, or the clinging together; and the Papaa, securely walled, which held the love closely. The kahuna’s prayers and incantations converted the cane into carriers of the spell, or mana, and guaranteed that the recipient would fall passionately in love with the sender. The petitioner brought a piece of each of the three canes to a kahuna hana aloha, who possessed the ability to cast the proper spell. Before starting the charm, a good kahuna would consult the gods to see if they approved. This was done by filling a calabash with water, giving the water a quick stir and then dropping on its surface two ilima blossoms – all to the accompaniment of incantations. If the blossoms remained separated, the gods did not approve. If the blossoms came together, but later separated, the effects of the charm would be temporary. But if the flowers came together and remained together, the gods were favorable. Of course, not all kahuna were conscientious; some did not bother with the ilima flowers, but would invoke the mana without any assurance that the gods would approve.

 

Three pule hana aloha compiled in Gutmanis (1983) are presented here. The first two are to capture a new love, such as that blown to the wind by 'Manulele.' The third is to reinvigorate a weak love that may be accompanied by 'Papa‘a' or 'Pilimai.'

Makanikeoe Makanikeoe
Hono a lele The joining flies
Lele ke aloha The love flies
Pili ia (inoa) This pertains to (name)
‘Ilaila ‘e pili ai There it will be in contact
‘A moe ‘ole kona po And sleepless are his/her nights
Lele ‘oe a loa‘a o (inoa) You fly until you get (name)
Ma kona wahi e noho ai At his/her place at which s/he lives
Ho‘okomo ‘oe i ke aloha iloko ona You put love into him/her
Ka hali‘a, ke kuko, ka makalahia The fond recollection, the strong desire
Moe ‘ole ai kona po That his/her nights may be without sleep
Ho‘iho‘i mai a pili a pa‘a me ia‘u Return and join firmly with me
E pili a pa‘a, mau a mau Come together, fixedly, continually
A mau loa And ever after
A kau i ka pua aneane Till the last offspring is born
Uli iluna, Uli ilalo Uli above, Uli below
Uli ‘ai, Uli noho Uli that eats, Uli that dwells
E ku ‘oukou i ka wahine/kane Get the woman/man, all four of you
Ho‘iho‘i mai ‘e pili me a‘u kana Bring him/her back to join me, his/her
kane/wahine aloha loving man/woman

 

Those who suspect that they have been affected by a love spell can approach a different kahuna to attempt to undo the work of the first in a ceremony called pale hana aloha (literally "the warding off of hana aloha"). While many are used in hana aloha, 'Laukona' is the only cane referenced for use in pale hana aloha. If performed properly, another ceremony and the eating of 'Laukona' can free an individual from the spell, causing a man to dislike (konākonā) a woman or vice versa. 'Laukona' refers to the gusty southerly winds. As the prayer is recited, the inflicted victim eats the cane to blast away the unwanted infatuation with the fury of the Kona wind. A final pule evokes this desire:

 

E ho‘okonakona, e wehe, e kala Hold in contempt, undo, release
Kiola hoohele‘i i ka mana‘o Throw away, scatter the thought
Ho‘opalaka, ho‘opoina Indifferent, forgotten
Ho‘opoina loa i ku‘u aloha Entirely forgotten my love
ho‘owahawaha aloha utterly despised
Ho‘opauloa, me ka hi‘a Bring entirely to an end the rubbing back and forth
‘Amama, ua noa, lele wale aku la ‘Amama, it is free of taboo, simply flown away

 

While hana aloha often has the connotation of being for manipulative relationships, it has been used to cause love and affection more broadly. 'Pilimai' in particular was used to create more familial relationships in situations that called for this. The best example is when a child was hānai at a very late age; hana aloha was used to help build a strong bond of love between the child and the foster parents.

Sorcery

On the opposite end of hana aloha, some canes are used for more evil purposes, and even in ‘apu kōheoheo – poisons. The addition of sugarcane juice was said to accelerate the poison, and also to disguise the taste from the drinker, such as the bitter-tasting drink made from the ‘akia (Wikstroemia uva-ursi). Very few canes were used in these types of applications, the most well recorded of them being 'Pāpa‘a' and 'Pale ‘Opua.'

Tattoos

The primary ink used for kākau, or tattoos, uses sugarcane juice. Charcoal from charred kukui shells, or the soot of burning kukui nuts, was mixed with sugarcane juice to create the ink. For this purpose the cane 'Nānahu,' which literally means charcoal, was used. Just as wai kō was used to aid the healing of cuts and lacerations, it is likely that the juice helps the tattoo heal. Other plants, such as the sap of the ‘ilie‘e (Plumbago zeylanica) were used after to help the ink set and darken in the skin.

Resources

Sugarcane also has several uses as a physical resource. The leaves are used to thatch the inside wall of the hale, providing a neat, finished look to the walls and a sweet scent to the house. Lauhala provided a longer-lasting finish but no scent. leaves were not used to thatch the outside of the house in Hawai‘i, where pili (Heteropogon contortus) was preferred, but in other parts of Polynesia, such as Sāmoa, sugarcane was used extensively. In temporary dwellings in the upland, might have been fashioned into a quick, easy roof by using the entire sugarcane top, typically with 20 to 30 leaves attached, rather than thatching with bundles of stripped leaves.

 

The flowers are put to use in lei making, particularly in lei haku. Lei kō provides a beautiful silver crown, prized because of the delicacy needed to work with the flowers that readily disperse if not handled carefully. In this style of lei, the short flower stems are woven together so that no other materials are needed. A beautiful ‘oli by Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele captures the delicate beauty of the lei kō:

 

Kō a ke kō kehau Sugarcane tassels supporting the dew
Ka lihilihi luhi i ka ‘ehu Its tassels drooping in the morning
‘O ka ‘ehu kai ho‘okāhiko mai It is the morning mist that bedazzles
Ku‘u lei ‘ōlinolino i ka lā My lei glittering in the sun

 

The flowers, besides being harvested for decoration, were used to line the hōlua (land-sledding) tracks to make them suitably slippery and fast. The flowers also served as the “feathers” of Hawaiian arrows that were used primarily for hunting rats and birds. The flowers could be wrapped in kapa to create a soft and sweetly scented pillow. Embalming of the deceased can be done using the pua (flowers), by soaking them in pa‘akai and wrapping the body with the salted flowers, as well as inserting them into the body’s orifices to quickly dry out the corpse.

 

The long flower stalks can be trimmed to make lei needles, or sharpened whole to create a natural dart. The tips of the darts are typically dipped in mud to provide the correct weight balance. Both adults and children used these darts in several games. One such game is ke‘a pua, in which a sugarcane dart is ricocheted off a ramp and judged on distance or accuracy. The dried stems of the flower are split and used for plaiting, being prized for their smooth surface and silvery sheen when prepared correctly. The stems may be prepared by soaking in hot or boiling water for 10–15 minutes, then dipped in cold water and, when dried, scraped clean to make the shiny ribbons. This usage of the flower stalks can be seen in old woven hats.

‘ŌLELO NŌ‘EAU

There are many ‘ōlelo nō‘eau regarding , often with both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. In addition to providing pieces of knowledge, these sayings also hint at how is perceived and referenced in Hawaiian thinking. Several ‘ōlelo nō‘eau are presented here, clustered into similar categories.

The most common and straightforward types of ‘ōlelo nō‘eau involve seasonal timing, often relating processes on land to those in the ocean. Things are more accessible to observe on the land and can be informative as to what is happening in the sea. This form of relationship is much stronger than seasonal information captured in hard dates. The yearly variations in rainfall and temperature mean biological occurrences happen at slightly different times each year, such as the spawning of a fish or the fruiting of a tree. However, if the correct biological events are coupled, they may vary in a similar way year to year. These two sayings both involve the pua kō, or the time of year that sugarcane flowers. This is typically November and December but may change from year to year by several weeks or more.

 

Pua ke kō, ku ka he’e When the sugarcane blooms the squid are plentiful
Pua ke kō, kūkini ka ‘āholehole When the cane blooms the ‘āholehole are running

 

The silver tassels of the sugarcane are often likened to white hair, and may be used as a polite way to reference an elderly person. Two similar sayings use this metaphor. The first is said of one who lives until his hair whitens, indicating living a long life. The second uses the same symbolism more subtly. Both these sayings refer specifically to ‘Kea,' a play on the meaning of kea (white).

 

Ola a kau kō kea Living until the kō Kea tassels
Ua heu ka kō kea The white sugarcane has grown

 

Specific parts of the cane are referred to as a way to hint at individuals' disposition. Here the first saying applies to the flowers of the sugarcane, which are silver/gray upon emerging. This saying can be used to refer to a keiki who shows wisdom and potential, indicating that they have characteristics beyond their years – that they have "gray hair" even in their youth. The second saying in meant to refer to the buds of the sugarcane, which are hidden under the leaf sheaths until they begin to grow and emerge. A person likened to the buds of the cane are those who are humble or shy but can accomplish great tasks.

 

Hanau ia, kuakea nā hulu When it is born, its hairs are gray
He manu, nā maka i lalo ka ‘ēheu A bird, with eyes under the wing

 

Not all the expressions involving are positive. Here three sayings are used in derogatory ways. The first is rather straightforward and likens a person to the discarded pith of sugarcane.  The pith is chewed for the juice then thrown aside like trash, implying a person of no consequence. The second saying, stating, "No amount of sugar will sweeten," implies a difficult person whose anger cannot be mollified. The third saying, which refers to the "lack of sweet cane," was used as a cynical allegory for the residents of Kohala, implying that they are difficult and stubborn.

 

‘Aina kō kiola wale ‘ia i ka nahele Sugarcane trash thrown in the wilderness
He ‘oi kēlā ‘o ke kanaka huhū He’s a very angry man
‘a‘ohe pū kō momona iāia no clump of sugarcane will sweeten him up
‘A‘ohe opu kō momona i Kohala There are no sweet clusters of cane in Kohala

 

Pupukea, an ali‘i from Hawai‘i Island, coined an exceptionally famous saying. It was said in retort when the Maui chief Makakuikalani made fun of his small stature. Many slightly different versions and explanations of this renowned line exist. The obvious interpretation is that just because something or someone seems one thing, it can, in reality, be something very different – akin to the English idiom "don't judge a book by its cover." This saying was later used in praise of the warriors of Kohala, who were known for their courage and were said to be small in stature but fierce and strong. It was also used as an insult to Kohala farmers, where the harsh conditions of their māla made farming difficult. More poetically, it has been interpreted to mean that something might look easy but is hard to do.

 

He li‘ili‘i pā‘ā kōkea no Kohala Like the little, hard white cane of Kohala
e kole ai ka waha ke ‘ai it will hurt your mouth when eaten

 

Several sayings refer to the unique usage of sugarcane for hana aloha. The first is a derogatory reference to the use of love magic. As part of the prayers and ceremonies associated with hana aloha the participant blew in the direction of his or her desired person, literally "blowing the medicine." When used with evil intent, such as for revenge or to humiliate, the sender is spoken of as an ugly person. This is meant in the literal sense, as the sender has no charm and cannot find love, and also in the figurative sense as resorting to manipulative sorcery. The other three sayings specifically reference varieties used in hana aloha, referring to their specific uses. 'Pāpa‘a' "holds fast to love," referring to its inducing longstanding relationships. 'Pilimai' is used for short-term infatuations, and the saying doubly refers to hana aloha as love magic, and making love. 'Laukona' is used when "love is despised" in order to reverse the effects of an unwanted infatuation.

 

Puhipuhi lā‘au kahuna By blowing the medicine given by a kahuna
ka maunu loa‘a aka pupuka can the ugly gain his desire
No ka lele o ke aloha The sending of love
ke pili mai, ke hana aloha Pilimai, the love magic (or come hither, make love)
He Pāpa‘a ke kō, pa‘a ke aloha Pāpa‘a is the cane that holds fast to love
He Laukona ke kō Laukona is the sugarcane
konākonā ke aloha love is despised

 

Another saying refers to the usage of the flowers in hōlua, or mountain sledding. The flowers of the canes are added to the course on top of kī leaves, making the course more slippery and faster.

 

Pua ke kō, ne‘e i ka he‘e hōlua When the kō tassels, move to the sledding course

 

Some sayings refer specifically to how cane was planted in different areas. The first saying below mentions the long lines of cane in Kohala of Hawai‘i Island. This refers specifically to the vast field system in Kohala, where field walls planted with sugarcane extended for miles across the landscape. Here the "rows of sugarcane" acted as windbreaks in the harsh landscape. The second saying refers to Halāli‘i on Ni‘ihau Island, where the cane stalks famously were said to grow in the dry dunes. The sand would blow and shift, burying the stalks and leaving only the leaves protruding. This would help to preserve the moisture of the cane, and allow kō to be grown in the dry Ni‘ihau landscape, but harvest would require digging in the soft sand.

 

I ‘ike ‘ia no o Kohala i ka pae kō Kohala is recognized by her rows of sugarcane
Ke kō ‘eli lima a Halāli‘i Hand dug sugarcane of Halāli‘i

 

Authored by: Noa Kekuewa Lincoln.  
Please properly cite any use of information or graphics from this page. 

Lincoln, N. (2017) Kō: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. 
Retrieved from: http://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/cane/Home.aspx