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The Flowering Plants of Hawaii (beta)

Part 59 Liliaceae-Marantaceae-Musaceae


Astelia menziesiana
Astelia menziesiana.
Dianella sandwicensis
Dianella sandwicensis
Calathea crotalifera.
Calathea crotalifera

The familiar lily family (more below) is represented on the Hawaiian Islands by three genera, Astelia, with three endemic species; Dianella, with a single indigenous species; and Hippeastrum, with a single naturalized species.

The example of Astelia here is A. menziesiana (see image), kaluaha, pua`akuhinia, a plant of wet to very wet forests and bogs, often growing on trees (epiphytic). It occurs on all of the main islands except Ni`ihau and Kaho`olawe. The photograph was taken in the forest at the southern end of Kilauea Iki. The other two endemic species, A. argyrocoma and A. waialealae, are restricted to wet habitats on Kaua`i.

Dianella sandwicensis (see image), occurs on all of the main Hawaiian Islands, except Ni`ihau and Kaho`olawe, and in the Marquesas. Two Hawaiian names are given in the Manual, `uki`uki and just `uki. According to the Hawaiian Dictionary, the specific name for this plant is `uki`uki, whereas the word `uki is a general term for course sedges, some of which we met above. The flowers of this species can be white to pale blue, but it is the color of the berries, a characteristic dark blue, that allows it to be identified most easily in the field.

Authors of the Manual present the historical view of the family when they describe it as comprising about 4,000 species assorted into about 280 genera. As a result of newly acquired data–much of it DNA-based–and changes in the overall view of what constitutes a 'good' family, Liliaceae have undergone one of the more drastic reassessments of relationships and boundaries of a flowering plant family that we have seen in recent botanical history. Following the newer view of the family, it would be concluded that the Hawaiian Island flora lacks members of Liliaceae altogether. Thus, Astelia now resides in its own family, the Asteliaceae, with three other genera and a total of 35 species; Dianella finds its home in the Hemerocallidaceae, which overall consists of 63 species in18 genera; and Hippeastrum can be found with amaryllis and related species in Amaryllidaceae, this family consisting of 900 species in 60 genera. These changes do not, of course, alter the situation 'on the ground,' the species involved are still as attractive and interesting as they ever were.


A single species of Marantaceae, Calathea crotalifera, has become naturalized near Käne`ohe on O`ahu. This attractive plant, known as the rattlesnake plant appears in the illustration (see image). The family consists of 630 species in 30 genera and are primarily from tropical areas of the New World, with some representatives in Asia (Mabberley, p. 523).


Musa x paradisiana.
Musa x paradisiana

According to Mabberley (p. 563-564) Musaceae consist of three subfamilies, Musoideae, the true bananas; Strelitzioideae, the bird-of-paradise flowers; and Heliconioideae, the heliconias. The latter two groups of plants are dealt with in this book in their own families, Heliconiaceae above, and Strelitziaceae below. Following the Manual, Musaceae consist of two genera, Musa, with about 35 species native to Indo-Malaysian, Asian and Australian tropics; and Ensete, with seven species in East Africa. Two species of Musa are listed in the Manual, the common banana Musa x paradisiaca, (see images) and M. troglodytarum.

The notation used in the common banana's name indicates that it was of hybrid origin; the parental species were M. acuminata and M. balbisiana. Bananas have been cultivated in Indonesia for at least a millennium resulting in the development of hundreds of cultivars. Some of the more familiar forms are the common dessert banana, the smaller apple banana, and the plantain, which can be eaten either green (but cooking required) or ripe when it can be eaten as is. The banana was well known throughout Polynesia and was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by the early colonists. It is estimated that as many as 70 varieties of banana were developed by the early Hawaiians; the present day number is closer to about 20, and most of these grow in remote valleys. The Hawaiian name for banana is mai`a. The other species on the islands is M. troglodytarum. The unusual specific epithet derives from the word troglodyte, meaning a person living in a cave, or in isolation, perhaps referring to the fact that this plant is cultivated in remote valleys. The Hawaiian name for this species is mai`a hë`ï which is derived from the Tahitian name of the plant, namely, fë`ï (Pukui and Elbert, p. 221). This species of Musa was brought to the Islands from Tahiti, where it is an important food crop, although it is not cultivated commercially in the Hawaiian Islands. Another name for this banana is mai`a Polapola, where Polapola, one of the Hawaiian words for Tahiti, informs us about the origin of the plant.

The banana played an important part in the life of Hawaiians, although it was not cultivated in as organized a fashion as was taro. Usually, a family would have a small grove of banana plants near their house or at the edge of a taro patch. In good times, bananas were eaten as a treat; they only became a major component of the diet during times of drought. There were limitations, however, on who could eat some of the varieties; only two of the varieties grown could be eaten by women. In ceremonies that did not call for animal or human sacrifice fruits would be offered to the gods. Other parts of the banana plant were also utilized: leaves were useful as wrappers for food, coverings for earth ovens (imu), and stalks of felled mature plants were used as rollers for moving canoes. Owing to the close relationship between humans and bananas, which we will learn about below, it should not be surprising that cutting down a neighbor's banana trees was considered an act of war.

As is the case with most plants brought by the Polynesians–at least the major ones–there is a strong connection between the plant and the human form. For example, in Hawaiian mythology the banana was the embodiment of the god Kanaloa, one of the four main gods, the others being Käne (Widespread-Sky, the procreator of mankind who we met above in the taro story), Kü (god of war), and Lono (the father of waters, i.e., the bringer of rain; also, not surprisingly, god of agriculture, harvest, celebration, and music). Kanaloa is generally thought to be associated with the sea, as similar deities are known in other island groups in the Pacific. Kanaloa and Käne are believed to have been banana planters after their respective arrivals on the islands (presumably from Tahiti). As well, they traveled about as a pair with Kanaloa pointing out where water might be found and Käne bringing a spring into existence by thrusting his sword into the ground at the designated spot. One legend relates Kanaloa's desire to prepare their customary drink, `awa (kava) which, of course, requires a source of water.

The interested reader may find the recent book on bananas in the Hawaiian Islands of some value. This monumental and comprehensive treatment of the genus in the islands is the work of Angela Kay Kepler, whom we have met before in this series, and Francis Rust.

Literature cited…

Kepler, A. K. and F. G. Rust. 2012. The World of Bananas in Hawaii: Then and Now. University of Hawai`i Press, Honolulu, HI.

Pukui, M. K. and S. H. Elbert. 1986. Hawaiian Dictionary. University of Hawai`i Press, Honolulu

January 24, 2013

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