Eager little green thumbs

PUHI — Brian Yamamoto, a Kauai Community College science instructor, did not realize what was in store when he invited Island School instructor Sabra Kauka to bring the students over.

Yamamoto said some of the energetic, enthusiastic group of fifth grade students had never handled garden tools like shovels before, and in addition to seeing what the olena plant looks like, the students could get a lesson in gardening.

“I forgot how they can be,” Yamamoto said about the eager kids. “I told them they had to be good because they’re from Island School, and they replied, ‘Who said?’”

Yamamoto guided the young students through the different aspects of olena, also known as turmeric, a spice, which, in addition to creating dyes, also has medicinal uses. Olena can be identified as a member of the ginger family by the spicy aroma when crushing a leaf, he said.

“Sabra is using the roots to create yellow dye for the kapa created by the students in the Hawaiian studies class,” Yamamoto said. “We grow the olena in our gardens for study by the Hawaiian Studies program and our own research. We can share some of the plants with Island School as well.”

Olena is one of the two dozen plants brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian settlers aboard their voyaging canoes, states the Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii website.

Known as turmeric, it is the olena rhizome which is precious. In India, turmeric is widely cultivated as a dye and as in a spice, being yellow color associated with curry powder which is a mixture of spices which includes turmeric.

Olena in the Hawaiian language means yellow. Dyes from the olena roots were used to color tapa cloth with the young roots being steamed to provide a light yellow dye while the more mature roots yielding a golden, or deep orange dye. Juice from the crushed raw roots also produced a stain.

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