Ti Time - Hawaii's most underrated plant

Perhaps because of its ubiquity, ti may be the most underrated plant in Hawai‘i. Scarcely a day goes by without encountering Cordyline fruticosa in some form: in leafy skirts swishing on hula hips, in elegant trapezoids accenting plates, in steaming plates of ti-wrapped lau lau emerging from a ti-lined imu. You may have worn ti as lei, in elegantly twisted ropes and rosettes, and you have probably seen its splashes of color emblazoned across prim backyards and flamboyant resorts. You’ll see it in museums and archives, in musty photos of ti leaf sandals, rain capes, thatching and fishing accessories. You’ll hear about it, too, in old-time stories about liquor made of ti, blessings sprinkled with ti leaves, and healings attributed to its cool, sturdy leaves.

Is there anything this botanical wunderkind can’t do?

Ask Liz Huppman, horticulturist at the University of Hawai‘i Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden, or David Yearian of Tis Unlimited, one of the state’s prominent ti hybridizers. They know that while we appreciate the simple utility of this plant, botanically it’s got loads of sex appeal.

Because it’s low-maintenance and easy to propagate, says Huppman, ti is ideal for landscaping, hedges and interior accents, not just for cooking and cultural uses. “We know it’s popular for making leis and in Hawaiian cooking, but it’s also hugely popular as an ornamental,” she says. “There are people breeding them in Thailand and other parts of Asia, as well as throughout Hawai‘i. They’re breeding them for color, shape and size.”

Standing in a shaded greenhouse in Honolulu’s Mānoa Valley, she picks up a seedling of Tutu Elena. “I planted seeds, and this is one of only two that came out,” she explains. “It turns out that ti is unpredictable. When you grow it from seed, the progeny of a single plant could turn out vastly differently—one with curly, thin leaves, another with wide, flat leaves.”

And, says Huppman, “You have to grow ti for at least a year before you see what kind of color you have.”

“Although I hybridize, it’s really interesting when you plant from seed because you don’t know what you’re going to get,” confirms David Yearian. “A plant that’s relatively common, like Kaua‘i Beauty, is more of a pink, but it can produce big green-and-white tis, miniature tis, a ti that may be nothing like what the parent looks like.”

His two-acre farm in windward O‘ahu is a brilliant patchwork of color, an idyll of ti he’s grown from seed or pollinated by hand over 31 years of specialty hybridizing. It took two years to clear the land; there were bathtubs, toilet seats, debris and fierce overgrowth when he moved there 17 years ago. (His partner’s mother cried when she saw the property, exclaiming. “What on earth are you getting yourselves into?”) Today his farm is a paradise. Peking nightingales flit through trees and over antique millstones and curbstones now repurposed as moss-covered garden stepping stones. There are ferns, bamboo, lotus-leafed begonias and a canopy of trees, including an earpod tree and a towering tamarind that shades the spot where Cyrus, a blue-billed macaw, holds court, perhaps thinking he’s in the Amazon.

For the most part, the land is covered with ti—entire hillsides of them, in the ground and in pots, some 4,000 in pots alone. Some are from cuttings, others exceedingly rare hybrids he’s developed and named after friends, such as the multicolored Richard Ornellas, named after his friend with the personality as unique as the plant. Some are as large as trees, others as tiny as six inches high full-grown. The landscape is a canvas of red, pink, yellow, black, orange, pastels, stripes, solids and every shade of green imaginable. You won’t find much of the common green lā‘i, the wide-leafed ti used in hula shows, but you’ll find hundreds of ti you’ve never seen before, many of them hand-pollinated and created by Yearian.

“The lā‘i is sterile. It produces pollen but doesn’t have the ability to produce seeds,” he explains. “The colored varieties, which probably came from Australia, Indonesia and Jamaica, pollinate themselves or can be crossed with other plants. I try to isolate them. Ti flowers usually appear in the winter months, and when they’re out, I take a paint brush and transfer pollen from one plant to another, depending on which variety I want to hybridize or create.

“My mission over the last 30 years has been to create new varieties. About 12 years ago, I also started to collect some of the old plants that were produced in the 1920s and ‘30s so they don’t disappear forever.”

Most people have never seen these varieties, and Yearian doesn’t advertise. People looking for something special find him by word of mouth, or at plant shows, where he’s a regular presence. His ti plants generally sell for about $15 to $20, with the rare ones up to $50.

“I’ve had very little problem selling ti cuttings at shows,” he offers. “They’re so indicative of Hawai‘i. Even if they’re not native, they’re native enough.”

Ti—ki in Hawaiian—has come a long way from pre-contact Hawai‘i, when the common la‘i is thought to have been the only type growing in the Islands. In the century leading up to the early 1990s, writes Isabella Abbot in “La‘au Hawai‘i,” Hawai‘i’s 20 or so multi-colored ti cultivars had been introduced or hybridized. Today, with hybridizing continuing apace, no one knows how many varieties exist in all colors, sizes and shapes.

This much is known, says Yearian: as a sterile, seedless plant, the la‘i is certain to have been introduced by Polynesian settlers. Even the seed-bearing colored varieties are generally considered Polynesian introductions, though the spectrum of colors was nowhere what it is today. In the late 1800s, says Yearian, Queen Lili‘uokalani, an avid gardener, had a handwritten garden inventory that included red ti among the 170 plants listed.

The plant flourishes throughout the Pacific, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Guinea, Central America and many other parts of the world, and it’s thought by some botanists to have possibly originated in the Himalayas before spreading eastward to the Pacific. Writing in “Native Planters in Old Hawaii,” E. S. Craighill Handy, Elizabeth Handy and Mary Kawena Pukui noted that even shredded ti leaf skirts, knotted to a cord around the hips, was adopted from Gilbert Islanders who came to the Islands as sugar plantation laborers.

Ti may be the glamorous new star of ornamental horticulture, but it’s also a staple of the cultural, spiritual and medicinal worlds. Pre-contact Hawaiians made rain capes and sandals by intricately weaving ti leaves and stems, and they also used it as thatching material.

Sam ‘Ohukani‘ohi‘a Gon III, scientist and cultural adviser at The Nature Conservancy and the co-kumu hula of Halau Mele, will still gather ti leaves, dry them and weave them into sandals. “When we need to make our own footwear, we can make them out of ti,” he says. “I recently did a blessing for the reopening of the Poamoho Trail. I wore my own ti leaf sandals. They were so comfortable, I thought I would only wear them for a short distance, but I ended up walking in them for over a mile on the newly opened trail.”

Hawaiian cultural practitioners also reach for the pliable, cool leaves of the la‘i to soothe a fevered brow and help relieve illness and imbalance. The stiff rib is removed by making a shallow diagonal cut along the midrib, then carefully easing the rib away from the center, thus making the leaf more pliable. Applied to foreheads, backs and areas of pain, the leaves refresh, cool and restore.

“Ti is a symbol of purity,” explains Gon. He points to the custom of using ti leaves in Hawaiian blessings and dedications, and of planting ti at the four corners of a home or on the embankments of taro terraces for protection and purification. The plant was considered sacred to the god Lono and to the goddess of dance, Laka, and stalks of it, similar in shape to the kāhili, the feathered standard signifying royalty, were held aloft to mark the end of war and other important events.

Ti is still used by modern practitioners to conduct Hawaiian blessings. The kahu (pastor or honored attendant) will take clean water from the ocean or mountains and dissolve a pinch of Hawaiian sea salt in a wooden calabash. Ti leaves would then be used to sprinkle the special water while the kahu chants. “If you’re going to use a special water, as in Hawaiian blessings, you want to use a leaf that symbolizes purity, ” says Gon. The ritual of sprinkling with sea water or salted fresh water to remove kapu or purify, he says, is called pī kai.

The making of lei from ti leaves is less ceremonial, as is the wearing of shredded ti around the neck to protect or adorn. The popular use of ti leaves in cooking, as wrappings around lau lau, the bundles of pork, fish or chicken with taro greens, is well known. At lū‘au you’ll see the lau lau emerge steaming from the imu, the earthen oven lined with lava rocks and ti, banana leaves and banana stalks. Lū‘au tables are often adorned with ti and fragrant laua‘e ferns, greens also popular for decorative uses in homes. In the kitchen, both home and professional, chefs find the moisture-preserving ti leaves ideal for wrapping fish and meats for baking.

As a food, however, it’s less popular. The Hawaiians of old took the fibrous root of the ti plant and roasted it slowly in the imu until it caramelized into a confection, a rare sweet in a culture without candy. My long-deceased Hawaiian teacher described how her family roasted ti root in the oven, at low heat for many hours, to achieve a similar result. Having attempted this, I can say that digging up ti root is a lot of trouble, cleaning it is just as arduous, and a long, low-temperature roasting in a modern oven does not guarantee success. Ti root is tough and fibrous, and my attempt failed miserably. Even after eight hours in the oven, the root did not caramelize. Still, writes Isabella Aiona Abbott in “La‘au Hawai‘i,” it may be inappropriate to label it a famine food, as it was ordinarily eaten as a sweet and could serve as a “fallback in the event that other crops failed.” She remembers, from her own childhood, that baked ti root tasted like molasses.

More prevalent was the use of ti to make ‘ōkolehao, a potent spirit made by boiling the roots of the plant and then fermenting the remaining liquid. While recipes disappeared and ‘ōkolehao production in Hawai‘i ceased for several decades, Haleakalā Distillers on Maui resumed production in 2009. Claiming to be the first such distiller in Hawai‘i in 25 years or more, the company says it uses all local ingredients

There are those who remember what was undoubtedly the world’s best ‘ōkolehao, made in the late 1930s for a billionaire heiress with ties to Hawai‘i. Eighty-one-year-old Emma Veary, who declines to name her friend, savors the few last fingers of the precious ‘ōkolehao given to her by her friend’s estate. Local lore has it that the heiress had a seemingly inexhaustible supply. “She had it in the cellar, and I used to drink it straight with her,” recalls Veary. “I don’t drink, but this—I drink it straight. It’s like the finest brandy, only lighter. Lahi [her late friend’s Hawaiian name] was like my sister, and we were the only ones who drank it together.”

Veary keeps her cache of ‘ōkolehao in a Baccarrat decanter stored in a Portuguese oven at her Maui home. With a broad smile, she reached for the decanter and generously poured me a serving during a visit years ago. I swirled the dark liquid gold in the snifter, savored the aroma and mentally recorded my momentous encounter with the ‘ōkolehao I had heard about for decades. Then I closed my eyes, took a sip and was quiet for a long moment. The drink was silky, complex and slightly smoky and vanished gently from the tongue with a subtle but powerful finish. It was the most sumptuous liquid to ever pass my lips.

When I finally emerged from my reverie, I uttered four words: “This is from ti?” Veary beamed. My paean to the ti plant has not stopped since.