Mahalo nui loe eCanoe Plants of Ancient Hawai`i
This humble little root, about the size of an adult thumb, was probably one of the two dozen or so plants brought to Hawai`i by early Polynesian settlers in their voyaging canoes. `Olena's scientific botanical name is Curcuma domestica. It is best known throughout the world as Turmeric, and is a member of the ginger family.
`Olena is rarely found in Hawai`i today. It grows in cultivation and in the wild in moist forested valleys, up to altitudes of 3000 feet, preferring shade, yet able to tolerate heat.
The `olena is without a stem, yet the overlapping clustered leaves appear to be growing out of a stem above ground. The leaves are blade-like, 8 inches long by 3 inches wide, and rise to about 20 inches high, directly from the underground root. This root/rhizome grows its leaves much as the banana does.
It is `olena's rhizome which is precious. In tropical India, turmeric is widely cultivated as a dye and as a spice, being the yellow color we associate with curry powder, which is actually a mixture of spices that includes turmeric. The root is thick and orange or yellow-colored on the inside. It is this bright color that is characteristic of turmeric, the cooking spice. In the language of Hawai`i, `olena means yellow. Dyes from these roots were used to color tapa cloth. Young roots were steamed to provide a light yellow dye and the steamed older mature roots provided a golden or a deep orange dye. The juice of crushed raw roots produces stain also.
Traditionally, this root can be used medicinally. The roots are pounded and pressed to extract a juice that, when mixed with water, is helpful in earaches and to clear the sinuses through nasal application. The astringent qualities of `olena are also useful in cases of consumption, tuberculosis, bronchitis, colds and asthma, the root being lightly cooked and then eaten. Its use enhances the immune system by purifying the blood. At times `olena has been taken as a diuretic, and topically it can be helpful with pimples or to stop bleeding. Turmeric is anti-bacterial. Also, when taken daily, as a teaspoon or powder in food, tea or encapsulated, this plant offers relief from a variety of diseases. It alleviates inflammation in the blood, often considered to be a cause of our human diseases.
Ceremonially, the traditional use for `olena is as a purifier, containing much mana, spiritual power. Pieces of the crushed root mixed with sea water are sprinkled to remove negative influences from places, persons and things. Typically, when someone is ill, or when a home or other place is to be newly occupied and needing blessing, a ceremony is held. To sprinkle, a ti leaf is dipped into a calabash or bowl containing the `olena and sea water. The sprinkling is accompanied by prayers.
If you wish to cultivate `olena in your garden, remember that this plant likes rich soil, some shade and plenty of water. After the rhizomes are planted, `olena 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. When they do, they will later show flowers on a stem developing from the center of the leaf stalks, called petioles. The cylindrical flower cluster is about 5 inches long. The pale yellow and white flowers grow on the lower pale green bract, while the upper pinkish part of the bract grows no flowers.