What is certain is that long before European contact, because of its material, nutritional, medicinal, and religious importance, green-leaved Cordylines weretransported as seed and bare, cane-like cuttings by early settlers in their dugout canoes to virtually every habitable Pacific island as far to the East as Hawaii and Easter Island. In the May 2007 American Journal of Botany, Dr. Anya Hinkle, Dept. of Integrative Biology, University of CA, Berkeley. reports on a study which seeks to reconstruct human colonization patterns in the South Pacific by means of tracing early ethnobotanic uses of certain ti plant strains.
There is still debate as to whether there is in fact any sole “native” origin of Cordylines, and so far scholarly research cannot pinpoint with accuracy any one single location. It seems that of the several early purely green, and some red varieties—prior to modern methods of hybridization—a few were native to New Guinea, others to Samoa, to Tonga, to Fiji, to Australia, to New Zealand, and other locations scattered throughout Oceania.
To many the Ti plant is practically synonymous with Hawaii. Ti is the French Polynesian spelling. The native Hawaiian word is Ki. The long green leaves, or La’i, have numerous traditional uses many of which continue today. In some places leaves are still woven into a fisherman’s net, hukilau. In cooking, leaves commonly fill the place of aluminum foil and plastic wrap for steaming.
Since the leaves are thought to ward off harmful spiritual influences these ubiquitous “good luck” plants are highly desirable for island gardens. Planted around dwellings Cordylines are believed to protect both the home and its occupants. In years gone by the leaf also served as a flag of truce in ancient tribal battles. Leaves are used in ceremonial clothing, such as the kui la’I, or rain cape, and for making traditional hula skirts.
In fact an authentic Hawaiian hula skirt is not a grass skirt at all, but rather is made from green cordyline leaves! Historically, skirt styles varied by community. Perhaps the version most universally known to visitors is one that is comprised of a dense layer of no less than 50 green ti leaves, which need to be long enough to reach from an adult female’s armpit to her hand, with the bottoms (leaf tops) shaved flat.
Considered a plant of exceptional mana, or spiritual power, ti plants or Cordylines have been widely used by islanders in the treatment of illness, both physical and spiritual. The mashed, fermented roots have also been used to produce liquor—Okolehao, so called in Hawaii—a potent, high-percentage alcohol described as both reminiscent of brandy and moonshine. One of the M.S. Bounty mutineers had been a distiller in Scotland before going to sea with Captain Bligh. Once marooned upon Pitcairn Island, he set about finding something that could be turned into a potion that would lift their spirits, and chanced upon this brew that was distilled from a ferment of baked, mashed ti root.