Kī, the Ti plant, was an emblem of high rank and divine power. The kāhili, in its early form, was a kī stalk with its clustered foliage of glossy, green leaves at the top.
The kahuna priests in their ancient religious ceremonial rituals used the leaves as protection. Ki planted around dwellings is thought to ward off evil. (ksbe)
To dispel evil, fresh leaves were worn around the neck, waist, and ankles and hung around dwellings. Masses of plants were planted around homes to ward off evil and bring good fortune. (CTAHR)
It is a canoe crop, brought to the Islands by the early Polynesians. Kī was considered sacred to the Hawaiian god, Lono, and to the goddess of the hula, Laka. (ksbe)
The kī leaf was a most useful article to the Hawaiians in caring for food. The leaf is long and wide (20 in. x 6 in. is an average size,) smooth, shiny, tough, and, except for the midrib, the veins are unobtrusive.
It has no odor and is clean and fresh looking. Small foods were wrapped in a ti leaf laulau piʻao, larger in a flat bundle called laulau lāwalu.
Broiling wrapped food (lāwalu) was used a great deal. Food that had been cut into pieces, or small fish that would be lost in an imu, or burned crisp if broiled, were wrapped in leaves of the ti, occasionally in leaves of the wild ginger, which is said to have added a delicious fragrance to the fish.
The leaf bundle was toasted over the open fire, turning it occasionally and the food was cooked when the juice ceased to drip from the bundle. Mullet was “cooked with such perfection that when the banana leaves in which it had been steamed were taken off, it had received hardly a slight alteration in form and color.” (Titcomb)
Lieut. James Burney and Astronomer William Bayly, while anchored off Kaua‘i in 1779 with the Cook expedition wrote: “… the natives came off with hogs and sweet potatoes in plenty, and a Root that appears like a Rotten Root of a tree, and as large as a man’s thigh. It is very much like brown Sugar in tast but Rather Sweeter – the natives call it Tee (ki or ti.)”
Ti, grown in a favorable location for many years, may have a root weighing 200 to 300 pounds. Roots on the ordinary garden ti may weigh 50 to 60 pounds.
A favorite confection years ago was kī baked in the imu for about 24 hours or until it became a sweet, brown, candy-like food. (Mitchell)
Missionary William Ellis wrote of the ti root in 1823: “The natives bake it in large ovens underground. After baking, it appears like a different substance altogether …”
“… being of a yellowish brown colour, soft, though fibrous and saturated with a highly saccharine juice. It is sweet and pleasant to the taste, and much of it is eaten in this state”.
Foreigners first fermented, and then distilled, the Kī root into an alcoholic beverage. It is said to have started when Captain Nathaniel Portlock, part of Captain Cook’s crew in 1779, baked roots in an imu to convert its starches to sugars, added water and let it ferment with wild yeast into a mild beer.
Lieut. James Burney and Astronomer William Bayly, while anchored off Kauaʻi in 1779 with the Cook expedition wrote: ‘… The Natives eat it sometimes Raw and other times Roasted. We made exceeding good Beer, by boiling it in Water, then let it ferment, so as to purge itself.’
Later, William Stevenson, an escaped convict from Australia, is credited to have taught the native Hawaiians how to distill the beer beverage into a higher alcoholic concoction. (Kepler) Due to the early means of making the drink, it took on the name ʻōkolehao (lit. iron bottom.)
“Since the perverted ingenuity of some early beachcomber first adjusted a twisted gun barrel to an iron pot, and distilled from the root of the ti this liquor to which the French Republic through the Paris Exposition of 1899 gave a blue ribbon. …”
“ʻŌkolehao has been recognized as something in which Hawaiʻi might well have a proprietary pride, because of its surpassing excellence in its class.” (Hawaiian Star, September 20, 1906)
It had its detractors … “If people will drink, let us at least see, if possible, that they drink a fair article of poison. I hold that no man ever killed his wife when under the influence of good, generous liquor. It is the “tarantula juice,” the ʻōkolehao, that does most of the mischief.” (The Friend, October 1, 1879)
Ti is a member of the agave family; botanists had previously placed it in the lily family. Besides green, the foliage of ti plants can be red, orange, purple, or various combinations of these (blue has not yet been found in ti.)