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Hula plants’ steward
Isabella Abbott studies the uses and meaning of Hawaii flora
Native plants in relation to hula have religious connotations -- often representing the physical embodiment of gods and goddesses of hula such as Laka and other hula deities such as sisters Pele and Hi'iaka.
More than 40 plants also have symbolic or decorative uses, or are the basis for instruments, according to ethnobotanist Isabella Aiona Abbott.
Traditions of the Pacific
Lectures and workshops on hula continue through Nov. 8. Reservations recommended; call 848-4187 or e-mail email@example.com.
» Feb. 16: "Kahiko to Auana," workshop with Noelani Mahoe and Kumu Kaanohi Aipa; 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. at Bishop Museum; $30 per session
» Feb. 23: "Hula Plants Walking Tour," workshop, 9 a.m. at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, Big Island; free
» Hula Film Festival: "Ka Poe Hula Hawaii Kahiko (The Hula People of Old)" and "The Hula of Old Hawaii" show at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Atherton Halau; $5. Films will be presented monthly through Nov. 18, usually on the second Tuesday.
» Full schedule: Visit www.bishopmuseum.org.
A packed audience filled Atherton Halau at Bishop Museum last week to hear Abbott speak on the subject of hula plants. Seventy-five additional people filled the waiting list, hoping to hear the first lecture in "Traditions of the Pacific 2008," given by Abbott, a Bishop Museum board member.
Many in attendance had a particular interest in the subject as teachers and students of hula.
As in "Laau Hawaii: Traditional Uses of Plants," one of several books by the premier ethnobotanist, Abbott explored in depth the link between plants and their symbolism in serious forms of hula.
She asserts that endemic plants, many of them on the endangered list, must be protected in order to perpetuate knowledge of hula as an art form and form of prayer. Plants such as kauila, used for hula sticks, and hanapepe, the embodiment of Laka, are both in short supply.
"The plants might help in the future because they might have some genetic material that is a cure for disease such as heart trouble, such as digitalis," Abbott said. "Digitalis, or foxglove, is one of the oldest drugs, and it is still used to control heartbeat and heart rate. Hawaiians have a lot of weedy species, and they brought those weeds with them before they got here."
Abbott, a professor emeritus in botany at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and in biological sciences at Stanford University, is a Kamehameha Schools graduate and the first woman of Hawaiian descent to earn a doctorate in biology from the University of California-Berkeley, in 1950. She has made the study of Polynesian ethnobotany an area of personal academic interest and research.
"Anybody knows more about hula than I do," said Abbott, "but I am a botanist who knows plants."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Isabella Abbott addresses the audience at the Bishop Museum about hula plants.