'Ulu an icon of Hawaiian culture, spirituality
By Duane Choy
This article is dedicated to the exhibit "E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Kū Images," opening June 5 at the Bishop Museum, which reunites the three largest Kū images in the world.
Hawai'i's treasured Kū image, sanctuaried in our Bishop Museum, was reverently created from the wood of the 'ulu, or breadfruit. 'Ulu is considered to be Kū's kino lau — the body form of the supernatural being.
In Hawaiian lore, the god Kū lived secretly among humans as a farmer. Life was serene, until famine gripped the land. Loathe to witness the starvation of his family, Kū convinced his wife of a solution, but it would mean his departure. He submerged into the soil until only the top of his head remained visible. Day and night, his family remained at the site, his wife watering the ground with her tears. Unexpectedly, a green shoot sprouted, and evolved into a leafy, lofty 'ulu tree, bearing breadfruit that the family and neighbors consumed, saving themselves from their wrenching hunger.
The site of this myth is surmised to be Ka'awa-loa, in Kona, along the Big Isle's southwestern coast.
'Ulu (Artocarpus altilis) surfaces in numerous other Hawaiian legends. A picturesque 'ulu represents the goddess Haumea. On Lāna'i, the mischievous adolescent, Kaululā'au, was hounded by man-eating spirits, but beguiled them by taking refuge in 'ulu trees and blinding them with the 'ulu gum. The son of a ruling Maui ali'i was exiled to Lāna'i for uprooting the 'ulu trees of Lahaina.
Near the waters of Moanalua Gardens was an 'ulu tree from which the spirits of the deceased hurled themselves into the underworld. Funeral wreaths were sometimes weaved from 'ulu leaves. 'Ulu trees on a Kaua'i plain were planted by a bow-legged, bass-voiced menehune.
Hawaiian quilt tradition believes that those who stitch 'ulu leaves and fruit as their first quilt pattern will enjoy prosperity and abundance.
In Hawai'i, breadfruit was harvested with a tool called lou. The simplest form of cooking was 'ulu pūlehu, broiled over roasting embers.
Poi 'ulu is breadfruit baked in an imu, the flesh mashed with a little water. Piele 'ulu was prepared from crushing very ripe flesh with enough coconut cream to make a firm paste, which was wrapped in kī (ti) leaves, and imu baked. Pepeie'e 'ulu was like piele 'ulu, but with additional coconut cream, and after imu baking, was cooled, sliced, and dried in the sun. An oily film developed over the slices, and this food would keep for the season, with periodic placement in the sun to inhibit mildewing.
The wood of 'ulu was used to craft many useful items. It was shaped into the smaller, thinner surfboards called alaia. Compact, cylindrical segments of the trunk were carved into pahu hula (hula drum), with the stretched skin of manō (shark), laced by niu (coconut) fibers. Door posts, lintels of huts, and bow and stern deck planks for canoes were also constructed from 'ulu wood.
All parts of 'ulu contain a milky, white latex. The kēpau (gum) prepared from 'ulu was smeared on baited poles to capture manu (birds), either for eating, or procuring their feathers.
'Ulu gum can be applied as canoe caulking or sealant for two ipu (gourds) into an ipu heke (gourd drum). Combined with powdered pumice and clay earth, it creates a putty for patching wooden bowls.
'Ulu is superlative in landscaping. The alluring foliage of this evergreen tree makes it a captivating ornamental, providing cooling shade and nutritious fruit for the home garden. The tree serves as a terrific visual screen for privacy. The leaves yield abundant, organic mulch for the tree and other plants. On sloped terrain, it maintains soil stabilization.
Kahanu Garden, on the roughhewn Hāna coast of Maui, shelters the most extensive collection of breadfruit cultivars on the planet, and is a precious repository for germplasm of rare 'ulu.
Kū means "extended, rising upright," and the breadfruit tree was referred to as 'ulu kū, or "upright breadfruit." To Hawaiians past and present, 'ulu is an iconic, cultural symbol of abundance.