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How (and Why) Did Noni Make it to Hawaii?

By: Steve Frailey Thursday March 3, 2016 comments Tags: raw food noni, canoe plants, polynesians, noni history


Did you know that many of the plants and animals associated with Hawaii aren’t actually native to the islands at all?

In recent history, the species of plants and animals introduced by white settlers and tourism have brought big changes to the islands’ ecosystems. Some of these changes were positive, but most had a “complicated” impact, if not outright harmful.

HawaiiIn addition, many hundreds of years before that, Hawaii’s first settlers brought a wide variety of species with them from their homes on other islands. These Polynesian settlers travelled the oceans well before humans had discovered a way to accurately track longitude, much less plot a course with GPS!

Today, the Hokulea Polynesian Voyaging Society has set out to prove the effectiveness of these extremely sophisticated navigation techniques. They travel the world in voyaging canoes similar to the ones Polynesian settlers would have used as they set sail in search of their new homes.

This legacy is important to us, as you can read about in this blog post, because the technology of the canoes and the wayfinding arts used to navigate them are directly responsible for the presence of abundant noni trees in the valley on Kauai where our farm is located.

As human beings, we’re still sorting out the ethics of the impact we inevitably have on the natural world. Looking back on those Polynesian settlers and forward at the mission of the Hokulea Voyaging Society makes me hopeful that we can learn how to shape nature to meet our needs without destroying it.

How Noni Trees Spread to Hawaii

Because of their isolated nature, islands tend to develop interesting pockets of unique and native species, while also remaining bare of other species that are common on the mainland. It’s largely up to chance whether birds, wind, or the sea conspire to bring new species to an island. But humans are one of the few species to deliberately colonize the natural world with plants they need for survival.

Many of the Hawaiian Islands’ non-native species arrived along with ancient Polynesian settlers. These settlers set out in canoes for new islands, where they weren’t certain of being able to find culturally and medicinally important plants growing indigenously. So they developed a practice of taking these vital species with them in their canoes.

For that reason, these species become known as canoe plants. They are a rich part of Polynesian and Hawaiian history to this day, and for good reason. Most of the species brought along are extremely useful crops, whether for building structures, providing calories, or preserving good health.

You can read more about canoe plants and their legacy by clicking here, but here are a few essentials:

  • Coconut
  • Taro
  • Breadfruit
  • Sugarcane
  • Banana
  • Bamboo
  • Sweet potato
  • Noni

Each of the canoe plants was given tremendous significance in Polynesian culture, with certain ways they ought to be used for maximum benefit.

Modern Lessons from Traditional Cultural Practices

The Hokulea Voyaging Society’s mission is to spread the idea that “our natural world is a gift with limits and that we must carefully steward this gift if we are to survive together.” One of the ways they do this is by spreading awareness all around the world about Polynesian culture, and the natural ethic of sustainability that comes along with living on an island.

One of the interesting things about studying traditional cultures is the way good, practical advice gets tied up with laws and spirituality. In Polynesian culture, for example, knowledge was passed down orally as kapu, rules for how life ought to be lived to promote maximum health and harmony.

These rules were passed on because they were proven by the test of time and the experimentation of many generations. It only made sense to pass down innovations if they made a measurable impact in quality of life.

It’s amazing how often modern science examines traditional cultural practices, only to find an extremely practical, scientific reason why they’re so effective. Maybe we need to get better at trusting the evidence of what generations upon generations of our ancestors have “proven” to be beneficial.

After all, if these plants were important enough to bring across the ocean in a canoe, might they fill a unique niche in our modern lives too?

Why Traditional Foods & Medicines Work

This is especially true of traditional foods and medicine, which tended to overlap far more than food and medicine do today. As omnivores, humans have a long cultural history of trying out a wide variety of foods and incorporating the ones that helped people live longer or live a better life.

Again, innovations were only passed down when they worked — and they usually had to work in the relatively short term for the beneficial effects to even be noticed!

A great example is the practice in the North American southwest of growing corn, beans, and squash together, using corn as the trellis for the beans, the beans to fix nitrogen for the corn, and the squash as a living ground cover. Not by coincidence, modern science has found that those three foods, when eaten together, provide all the essential amino acids to build protein, among other health-related synergies.

Noni fruit is another example of a food that was eaten traditionally, but which modern science is only just beginning to understand.

The Significance of Noni

Noni is somewhat unusual among the canoe plants, as it is neither a great source of calories, nor is it great for building structures. It’s a fruit with an arresting smell and flavor that certainly couldn’t be described as sweet.

So why did so many Polynesian voyaging canoes sail the Pacific laden down with noni tree saplings and seeds? Because the settlers knew they needed noni promote overall good health and energy. There was no substitute, and I maintain that there still is no substitute to this day.

If you’d like to learn more about how noni was discovered and used by Polynesians, check out this blog post.

Noni is a key ingredient of a healthy and energetic. Today, many of noni’s 165+ beneficial compounds are being studied for their application in modern medicine, but none of the extracts have been as effective as pure, raw noni pulp, whether eaten fresh from the tree or dehydrated as Noni Fruit Leather.

Noni is a great example of a plant that was introduced by humans, which has a beneficial overall impact on Hawaiian life, for both humans and the natural world. But only if it’s cultivated and grown responsibly. We take great care with our organic farming practices to ensure that our use of the noni growing abundantly in our valley and orchards is a net gain for the ecosystem, rather than a loss.

Polynesian settlers recognized something very important about the work of being human beings, which I think most of us today could stand to be reminded of. Humans will inevitably change and alter their habitats to suit their needs. But we can do it respectfully, or we can do it destructively.

Join us in our work to unite human beings more closely with the natural world, by shopping from small, local organic farmers and by following the work of awesome organizations like the Hokulea Polynesian Voyaging Society.

In your day-to-day life, how do you maintain balance between the needs of the natural world and your needs as a human being?

Steve Frailey

About the Author: Steve Frailey

My wife and I (Steve Frailey) moved to Kauai, Hawaii in 1982 from our organic farm in California. There were no roads, electricity, water or buildings but lots of Noni trees (Morinda Citrifolia) in our valley. We also developed a deep relationship with Noni that was growing all through our valley.  Today we run our Hawaiian Organic Noni farm, and share the gift of health with people throughout the world.