Kou Tree - Cordia subcordata We have Kou trees around Waikiki and around O'ahu. Kou Haole (Cordia sebestena) has a more orange flower and is slightly different than this tree. The city plants Kou trees all along the roadways and you will see them in many parking lots and parks. The Kou tree is an indigenous Hawaiian plant found around the Pacific region. The tree is very hearty and makes great shade on Waikiki beach. The flowers are used for lei making and the wood used for food bowls ('umeke). Long lasting with little shrinkage this wood is prized for large containers. Because of little sap or off flavors from the sap, this is a preferred wood for food containers. The leaf of the Kou is historically used to make a brown dye for Kapa, Hawaiian printed fabric.
In ancient Hawaiʻi kou wood was used to make ʻumeke (bowls), utensils, and ʻumeke lāʻau (large calabashes) because it did not impart a foul taste to food. ʻUmeke lāʻau were 8–16 litres (2–4 gal) and used to store and ferment poi. The flowers were used to make lei, while a dye for kapa cloth and aho (fishing lines) was derived from the leaves.
Mahalo nui loa e Na Mea Makamae
'Umeke Nui - Large Calabash
This exceptionally large kou calabash is very rare. Kou wood was used because of its workability and fine grain. It did not impart a bad taste to food as did some of the other woods, such as koa. Wooden kou bowls were usually reserved for the ali'i (royalty), while the maka'ainana (commoners) used containers made of hollowed out gourds.
The kou tree once was common along the shore, but was attacked in the 1850s by a nonnative insect that almost wiped out the species. Though not common, the tree can still be seen at certain shoreline locations. This calabash measures 13.5 inches high and 16.5 inches across the rim.
Mahalo nui loa a aloha mai no kaua e +Jan TenBruggencate
HAWAI'I'S ENVIRONMENTKou tree predates voyagers
By Jan TenBruggencate
The kou tree was so useful to early Hawaiians, and is so widely spread throughout Polynesia, that it made perfect sense for early scientists to assume it was one of the "canoe plants."
Those are plants Polynesians are assumed to have brought with them in canoes — the plants that they deemed critical to survival in a new land. Canoe plants included food plants, medicinal ones, and ones used for decorative purposes, cordage and more. Most of the nearly 30 canoe plants are found throughout the Polynesian Triangle.
Kou is perhaps most valuable for its wood, which can be carved into sturdy, long-lasting bowls that can hold liquid foods without imparting a taste to them. In addition, its orange flowers were used for lei, and its leaves could be used to dye tapa, as Isabella Abbott wrote in her remarkable book "La'au Hawai'i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants."
Other canoe plants were yams, sweet potatoes, gingers, bananas, breadfruit, coconut and many more.
It had long been believed the pandanus, hala, was a canoe plant, for the food value in its fruit, but perhaps more for the prized leaves used for weaving mats, sails and much more. But some years ago, hala imprints were found in an ancient lava flow, proving the plants predated human presence in the Islands. More recently, hala pollen has been found deep in sediment layers at multiple sites that date to long before human arrival, confirming the lava-flow evidence.
Now, it turns out kou falls into the same category.
Pollen studies in the Makauwahi Sinkhole at Maha'ulepu on Kaua'i have found that kou was part of the coastal forest on Kaua'i thousands of years before the first Polynesians set foot on the archipelago.
Archaeologist/ecologist David Burney, who conducted the pollen studies, said the find was a surprise.
He has been trying to plant a forest that looks like what was on the southern Kaua'i coast before Hawaiians arrived, and his plantings now include both the kou and the hala.
As Abbott has suggested, this still doesn't mean the first canoes didn't carry these plants. They were important enough to have been part of the canoe plant collection.
But in these cases, the early visitors would have been confronted by something familiar amid all the strange Hawaiian plants and creatures. And they could have begun fashioning food containers from the kou and sleeping mats from the hala without waiting for their canoe-borne materials to mature and reproduce.