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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 22, 2010

After all these years, kou still integral to Isles

By Duane Choy

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The evergreen tree kou features scentless orange blossoms, which were used for lei and medicine in old Hawai'i.

Duane Choy

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Kou (Cordia subcordata), not koa, is my favorite wood for a Hawaiian cala-bash bowl.

Historically, it was thought that kou was introduced to Hawai'i by early Polynesian voyagers. However, in 1997, while excavating the Makauwahi coralline sinkholes, at Māhā'ulepū on Kaua'i, scientists discovered fossilized kou seed, within sediment layers dating to 5,000 years before any humans arrived.

Hawai'i was prolific with kou in earlier times, but around the 1850s, the moth of the kou leaf worm (Ethmia nigroapicella) started decimating much of our local kou. Attacks now by the moth are less severe, and kou trees weather the predation.

Kou thrives from tropical Asia through Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, to the Marquesas, north to Hawai'i, and even the eastern coast of Africa and islands in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, kou is becoming scarce in the Pacific, because of over-exploitation for carving and destructive insect pests.

Kou is a small to medium evergreen tree, with a thick, expansive canopy. The pale gray bark is channelled or flaky. The alternate leaves are broadly oval to elliptical shaped, with blunt-pointed ends, and shiny green above, but dull below. Clusters of funnel-shaped, scentless, deep orange flowers, with five to seven lightly wrinkled lobes, bloom at the branch ends and in leaf axils. The roundish, green fruits turn brown when mature, and become hard and woody. Kou fruits continuously and floats easily in salt water. Individual fruits contain four or fewer white, narrow, dainty seeds.

Its habitat ranges from coastal, shrubby beach or lowland forests, and inland borders of mangrove. It will thrive in sandy or clay soils, and on rocky limestone or lava headlands. Kou prefers neutral to alkaline medium. It is relatively drought- and wind-tolerant, but constant wind turns trees flagged.

People worldwide have culturally incorporated kou. Groves of kou were often planted adjacent to sacred places, and kou is a major component in Pacific mythology.

In Tuamotuan folklore, kou was one of the first trees created.

In Tongan legend, when Maui transported fire from the underworld, and a drenching rain was about to extinguish it, Maui commanded fire to flee into the coconut, breadfruit and kou. In Ka'ū on Hawai'i island, there was a location named Pāpa'i Kou (Little Kou House), where the ali'i once had an impressive grove of kou trees. On O'ahu near Koko Head once existed kou trees called Ka Ulu Kou (The Kou Grove).

With bigger logs, kou was sometimes carved into canoes or paddles. Leftover wood from carving was burned as fuel. In Papua New Guinea, kou has the nickname of "kerosene wood." In Kiribati, and elsewhere, kou leaves provide fodder for pigs. Leaves possess medicinal properties, and in Hawai'i, flowers were utilized as treatment for 'ea (thrush). Kou seeds, when precisely removed from the woody fruit, provided a famine food.

In old Hawai'i, kou leaves furnished a tan dye for kapa cloth and for coloring fishing lines to make them less visible. The lustrous orange flowers were a traditional favorite lei. Kou bowls called waihona makau were fish hook containers, with covers made from gourds.

The wood is light to moderately dense. Sapwood is a light tan, sporadically pinkish. The heartwood is brown, with dark reddish-brown to black streaks, sometimes with purple hue.

In the Cook Islands, kou is carved into traditional figures and musical instruments. Kou wood is esteemed because of its splendid grain, fine texture, durability, minimal shrinkage and ease in carving.

Kou's superior attribute to not impart a bad taste in contact with food was capitalized on by early Hawaiians. Large kou calabashes called 'umeke lā'au were created for fermenting and storing poi. 'Umeke 'ai were bowls for eating poi. 'Umeke kou were food bowls. Pā kou were food platters. An 'umeke māna 'ai bowl for favorite keiki such as the hiapo (firstborn), for use after weaning, was carved from a kou tree that had been planted over the 'iewe (afterbirth) of grandparents. These bowls were kapu to everyone except the child.

Kou deserves recultivation into Hawai'i's 'āina. It's a terrific shade tree in the hot, arid, leeward sides of our islands. Kou can serve as a living fence, windbreak or boundary marker. Its tolerance for wind, salt spray and drought , coupled with sandy soil survivability, makes it a sterling specimen for coastal planting. Kou is an integral constituent in our Hawaiian landscape.