Ti, Ki, or Cordyline

What’s so special about a plant, you may ask? This is the plant that inspired Sips of Aloha!

Hawaiian Flag Ti Plant
Photo courtesy The International Cordyline Society

Cordyline fruiticosa to the scientific community, Cordyline terminalis to outdated scientific and literature communities, ti (pronounced: tea) in common local terminology, ki (pronounced: key) in Hawaiian, si in Tonga, and Mak Pu Mak Pia to the Thai – this one plant bearing many names really is the King of Tropical Foliage.

The tip of a Kiwi Ti Plant
The tip of a Kiwi Ti Plant

The ti plant is an upright evergreen shrub with a single white tap root that is thick, long, and sweet, growing bigger with age. While their true origin is lost in antiquity, the primary emergence of this plant is thought to have been in India. It now thrives in tropical regions across Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. About 24 varieties of ti exist outside of Hawai’i. In the state however, the list is much more extensive, with experimentation by local cultivars creating a multitude of new varieties.

The term Cordyline comes from the Greek word kordyle, meaning “club.” This is a reference to the large, club-like roots of some species. Horticulture books of the 19th century refer to the ti plant as the Club Palm due to their club-like root and the palm-like appearance of the spiral arrangement of leaves atop each branch.

Hawaiian History of Ki

Princess Ruth Keelikolani with hapa-haole chiefs Samuel Parker and John Adams Cummins as kāhili bearers.
Princess Ruth Keelikolani with hapa-haole chiefs Samuel Parker and John Adams Cummins as kāhili bearers.

Over 1,00 years ago Polynesians brought ti plant cutting to the Hawaiian Islands in their . Revered as a symbol of divine power, kahunas, or priests, wore ti leaf leis as a method of distinction. Kāhilis, tall staffs symbolizing royalty, power, and lineage, were originally ki stalks, with their glossy, green leaves clustered at the top. Later, Hawaiians fashioned feather kāhilis resembling the ti plant. Poʻe hahai manu were the feather gatherers who would spend decades and even generations in the forests collecting feathers of sacred birds, using fiber nets, nooses, and breadfruit tree sap to catch their prey.

Some time later, red ti plants made their way to Hawai’i. Perhaps they came from Melanesia, where it was believed that donning red ti leaves made men invulnerable fighters. Human intervention has indeed been necessary for the ti plant’s continued survival. At some point in time, the plant lost its ability to produce flowers and pollen, inhibiting traditional seed procreation, so even ancient Hawaiians propagated their ti by cuttings!

Ancient Hawaiian Uses

In pre-contact days, Hawaiians held a deep respect for ki, believing all nature is imbued with a spirit. Before picking a plant, one would pay respects to that plant for sacrificing its body for human benefit.

Material

MAN IN TI LEAF CAPE AND MALO, HOLDING A PADDLE AND STANDING NEXT TO CANOE. IMAGE FROM PACIFIC MAGAZINE 1923; AD FOR THE HONOLULU AQUARIUM “AN HAWAIIAN FISHERMAN OF THE OLDEN DAYS.”
Man in la’i cape and malo. Image courtesy Pacific Magazine 1923 Ad for the Honolulu Aquarium “Hawaiian fisherman of the olden days.”

Ancient Hawaiians wove together ti leaves, called la’i, to make ropes for hauling hunted animals, blankets for warmth, and baskets for gathering taro and other produce. Single leaves served as plates, food wrappers, and fans. Ti was also essential in clothing. For traipsing over sharp lava rock and jagged corals, ti leaves were braided, padded, and tied together. Rain capes, kui la’i, were initially made of only softened la’i, with netting added in later times. People who spent time in the forests and seas, water carriers, and field workers used rain capes to shed moisture and keep warm. Over time, the leaves would become shredded by the elements, but the capes remained functional.

Medicine

Ki are a centerpiece in the art of la‘au lapa‘au, healing through medicinal plants. Ki specifically chosen for medicinal use must be matched to the patient’s frequency, identified by their naka, or quiver, in a particular way. Remedies from ki treat headache, fever, and even cataracts. The water from boiled ki leaves was consumed to aid in nerve and muscle relaxation and ki leaves wrapped around a hot stone served as a heating pack!

Hula

La’i Lei with Tuberose

Ki is also tightly tied to the tradition of hula. The goddess Laka is the keeper of hula and holds dominion over the forest plants. Her altars are seen covered with la’i, which are worn in hula to heighten the awareness of movement. When braiding the la’i, good energy is essential. The leaves absorb the person’s disposition and are said to reflect it in the final lei.

Rituals and Blessings

Green ti leaf

The plant is also sacred in spiritual rituals, such as those performed to appease restless spirits that have been disturbed by human wrongdoings. The plant has become a symbol of good luck in a sort of Hawaiian “feng shui.” Ki planted around buildings, along walking paths, and around crops offer a connection to ancestral spirits and are said to ward off misfortune. Also a symbol of purity, the ti leaf is essential to pī kai, the ritual of sprinkling ocean water or salted fresh water to remove kapu and purify.

Sustenance

A 1789 journal entry by Captain James Portlock is the earliest evidence of any sort of ti root consumption. In his search for a cure to scurvy, he used boiled ti roots to make a beer, the origins of okolehao. The root is the only part of the plant that is consumed in any form. Very tough and fibrous, it was caramelized in an earthen imu and eaten as a sweet treat, similar to taste to molasses. In fact, Oahu’s Kaimukī neighborhood means “tī oven.” Legend has is that menehune cooked ti roots in imu in this area. Still today, ti leaves line imu ovens and hold moisture in wrapping fish and meats for baking.

Hukilau Fishing

Offshore net fishing is considered a popular institution in Hawai‘i. This photo of a fisherman hauling and dragging nets in Kailua during a hukilau, where spectators would often praise and cheer them on.
Dragging out a hukilau net Photo courtesy Honolulu Magazine
Hukilau – catching fish as a community, Kauai-style. Photo courtesy Kauai Historical Society
Hukilau fishing on Kaua’i
Photo courtesy Kauai Historical Society

Hukilau fishing is a technique that allowed Hawaiians to herd and capture fish in sandy-bottomed, shallow waters. Huki means and lau means “pull.” The net was adorned with ti leaves on one side, tied by their stems so the tips faced downward, spaced out ten to twelve inches. With one side of the net held by people on the beach, a group of swimmers or waders would carry the ti-side of the net into a bay. Once dropped into the water, the leaves danced in the currents and the high sun casted darting shadows. The ti leaves scared the fish into the center of the net, which everyone would pull in to capture their prey. Requiring 20 to 50 participants, hukilau fishing was often followed up by pa’ina, a traditional feast to celebrate their catch. Up to 4,800 pounds of fish were captured in a single day!

Men admiring their hukilau catch.
Photo courtesy Hawaii State Archives

Ti Takes on New Colors

Peter Buck Ti Plant is the one of the most common in the islands
Peter Buck Ti Plant
Photo courtesy The International Cordyline Society

Only green and red ti plants existed in Hawai’i until the 1920s when Gerrit Wilder brought over a Tahitian ti plant, orange in color with large leaves. Although his “Kauka Wilder” ti plant (kauka meaning “doctor” in Hawaiian) was a sensation, Sir Peter Buck of New Zealand brought over more of this same variety which he dubbed “Peter Buck,” the name we still use today to identify this popular ti.

Eugene André Ti Plant Photo courtesy The International Cordyline Society
Eugene André AKA Flaming Dragon Ti Plant
Photo courtesy The International Cordyline Society

Another important milestone in the assisted evolution of ti plants comes from Eugene André of Trinidad, who successfully bred his “Madam Eugene André” ti plant from seed. However, it was Dr. Harold Lyon, plant pathologist, researcher for the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association, and namesake to Honolulu’s Lyon Arboretum, who introduced André’s creation to Hawai’i under the shortened name of “Eugene André.” Lyon had traveled to the Caribbean in the 1920s to study farming methods, bringing back this treasured new variety along with many other ti plants. With these new, fertile ti plants in Hawai’i, local botanists experimented in cross-pollinating and new varieties began to boom.

Mini John Cummins Ti Plant
Mini John Cummins Ti Plant Photo courtesy The International Cordyline Society

By the early 1940’s, new hybrids flaunted a range of purples, scarlets, pinks, and greens. Mr. Colin Potter, a superintendent of Honolulu’s Foster Botanical Gardens, was active in these tests, growing hundreds of crossed seeds. Potter was the first in the Islands to breed the “John Cummins” ti plant, once said to be the most colorful and spectacular variety, fetched a price tag over $100 for a single plant.

Ti Today

Fanciers can hardly catalog all of the hybrids that exist today, with such slight differentiations between varieties and even between names. David Yearian of Waimanalo, known as “the ti guy,” could very well be the most knowledgeable ti plant authority of the day. His two acre garden goes by the name of Maluhia, meaning peace, quiet, and serenity. It is home to over 600 varieties of ti, over 300 of which he cultivated himself using a paint brush to cross-pollinate and coax out new colors, textures, and shapes.

David Yearian in his ti plant oasis.
Photo courtesy Dennis Oda/Honolulu Star Advertiser

Side Note: Winds, seas, and migratory birds transported spores that sparked early vegetal life in the Hawaiian Islands. However, the majority of exotic foliage that is entwined with Hawaiian culture and accounts for Hawai’i’s botanical luxuriance – flamboyant heliconias, vibrant hibiscus, fragrant frangipani, dazzling shower trees, and vivid bougainvilleas – has only prevailed here for around 200 years. Plant enthusiasts introduced these beautiful specimens to their private gardens, where they were first acclimatized for ornamental and practical uses.