“Canoe crops” (Canoe Plants) is a term to describe the group of plants brought to Hawaiʻi by the early Polynesians. It is believed that these settlers, and the settlers that followed them, introduced a variety of plant species.
One such was Wauke (Paper Mulberry.) It’s a tree that can grow up to 50-feet. It thrives in places along streams, in woods, hollows or uneven grounds, in dry taro patches, in moist land where water flows. It is a species of the Hawaiian wet forests.
Legend identifies wauke with Hina, on the island of Maui. This may indicate that the paper mulberry, like one species of bamboo, was first brought to and planted on that island, which was Hina’s home.
The legend tells of Hina and her tapa making that anciently the sun hurried across the sky so fast that her tapa had no chance to dry. So her son Maui went to the place where the sun rises (Haleakala.) There he watched and caught the first ray that rose and broke it off, so that ever since the sun has traveled the sky more slowly.
The proper time for planting wauke is at the beginning of a rainy period. The shrub is said to mature within 18 months from the time the slip is planted.
Thereafter it continues to grow, young shoots springing from the roots to replace old ones. By recultivating an old patch, a flourishing crop of stems (for bark-stripping) may be had.
According to Thrum, in the upland plantations the whole plant was sometimes pulled out for harvesting and the roots lopped off and cut into segments for replanting. (Handy)
As the wauke tree grew, planters cut off the side branches, so a straight trunk stalk without branch holes could later be stripped. In 6-10 months the trunk shoots were cut down and the roots and tops removed.
The chief use and the main purpose of its cultivation were the making of cloth. In Hawai‘i, wauke made the softest, finest, and most durable kapa (tapa – bark cloth) for dress, bed sheets and for ceremonial purposes.
Indeed, the wealth of a household was often counted in the number and quality of its fine kapa materials, and in those made available, through the industry and skill of the womenfolk, as a store from which gifts might be made to ʻohana and revered ali‘i. (Handy)
It was pounded into kapa and made into a malo: a strip of cloth nine inches wide and nine feet long for the man, and pa‘u for the woman: a strip a little wider and somewhat longer.
The Hawaiians beat the fibers with beaters that had designs carved into them, this would leave a watermark on the cloth. Second, they used colors not found on other kapa, reds, blues, pink, green, and yellow.
The method of getting wauke is the same for the various kapas which a person desires; it is only during the process of beating out the kapa that a person could make use of the pattern which she prefers. (Fornander)
The trunks were stripped of bark, as thick as a finger and about 4 feet long. The outer bark was slit and peeled off. The inner bark fibers, called bast, were then soaked in running water, such as a high tide pool, with stones placed on top of the fiber pile.
This part of the process breaks down the woody fibers and washes away the starch. A complicated process of soakings and fermentation followed, leaving the fine fibers of the moist inner bark still tough and resilient when finally removed from the waters.
At this time in the process, the women of Hawai`i would often twist cordage out of the fibers, for use as fish nets, upena and as carrying nets, koko, from which to hang calabashes of wood and gourds. (CanoePlants)
For Kapa, strips were laid edge to edge, and felted together by beating with wooden beaters of different sizes, square in cross section, having carved geometric designs on their four faces to give watermarking. Many successive beatings with lighter and lighter clubs were required to make the finest cloth. (Handy)
For the process of beating the kapa these things are prepared: The block on which to do the beating; this block is made broad and flat on top and the two ends are made thus: the top one is lengthened and the under one is shortened. Water is used through the beating process to keep the wauke continually wet. (Fornander)
The first i‘e (club – tapa beater) (a coarse-figured club) is used for hard pounding. After that is the i‘ekike, the dividing club, a smaller-figured club; then comes the printing club and the finishing club. The kapa is then cut. It is next taken to soak in water.
It is then spread to dry at a place prepared for drying it, that is the drying ground; there it is spread out and pressed down with rocks placed here and there so that the pa‘u would not wrinkle. This is continued until the pa‘u is dry. And this is done until there are five kapa; they are then sewn together. That is called a set of kapa.
The sap is used medicinally as laxative. Ashes from burned tapa was used as medicine for ‘ea (thrush). Strips of coarse tapa were worn around a nursing mother’s neck for milk flow. (kcc.hawaii-edu)