The Hawaiian Archipelago:
Six months amongst the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands
By Isabella L. Bird, 1875



Beauties of Hilo—Palms and Bananas—My First Hawaiian Ride—Hilo—Visiting The Rev. Titus Coan

Hilo, Hawaii

I find that I can send another short letter before leaving for the volcano. I cannot convey to you any idea of the greenness and lavish luxuriance of this place, where everything flourishes, and glorious trailers and parasitic ferns hide all unsightly objects out of sight. It presents a bewildering maze of lilies, roses, fuchsias, clematis, begonias, convolvuli, the huge granadilla, the purple and yellow water lemons, also varieties of passiflora, both with delicious edible fruit, custard apples, rose apples, mangoes, mangostein guavas, bamboos, alligator pears, oranges, tamarinds, papayas, bananas, breadfruit, magnolias, geraniums, candle-nut, gardenias, dracaenas, eucalyptus, pandanus, ohias, kamani trees, noni, and quantities of other trees and flowers, of which I shall eventually learn the names, patches of pine-apple, melons, and sugar-cane for children to suck, kalo and sweet potatoes.

In the vicinity of this and all other houses, Chili pepper, and a ginger-plant with a drooping flower-stalk with a great number of blossoms, which when not fully developed have a singular resemblance to very pure porcelain tinted with pink at the extremities of the buds, are to be seen growing in "yards," to use a most unfitting Americanism. I don't know how to introduce you to some of the things which delight my eyes here; but you must try to believe that the specimens of

tropical growths which we see in conservatories at home are in general either misrepresentations, or very feeble representations of these growths in their natural homes. I don't allude to flowers, and especially not to orchids, but in this instance very specially to bananas, coco-palms, and the pandanus. For example, there is a specimen of the Pandanus odoratissimus in the palm-house in the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, which is certainly a malignant caricature, with its long straggling branches, and widely- scattered tufts of poverty-stricken foliage. The bananas and plantains in the same palm-house represent only the feeblest and poorest of their tribe. They require not only warmth and moisture, but the generous sunshine of the tropics for their development. In the same house the date and sugarpalms are tolerable specimens, but the cocoa-nut trees are most truly "palms in exile."

I suppose that few people ever forget the first sight of a palm-tree of any species. I vividly remember seeing one for the first time at Malaga, but the coco-palm groves of the Pacific have a witchery of their own. As I write now I hear the moaning rustle of the wind through their plume-like tops; and their long, slender stems and crisp crown of leaves rising above the trees with shining leafage which revel in damp, have a suggestion of Orientalism about them. How do they come too, on every atoll or rock that raises its head throughout this lonely ocean? They fringe the shores of these islands. Wherever it is dry and fiercely hot, and the lava is black and hard, and nothing else grows, or can grow, there they are, close to the sea, sending their root-fibres seawards in search of salt water. Their long, curved, wrinkled, perfectly cylindrical stems, bulging near the ground like an apothecary's pestle, rise to a height of from sixty to one hundred feet. These stems are never straight, and in a grove lean and curve every way, and are apparently capable of enduring any force of wind or earthquake. They look as if they had never been young, and they show no signs of growth, rearing their plumy tufts so far aloft, and casting their shadows so far away, always lonely, as though they belonged to the heavens rather than the earth. Then, while all else that grows is green they are yellowish. Their clusters of nuts in all stages of growth are yellow, their fan-like leaves, which are from twelve to twenty feet long, are yellow, and an amber light pervades and surrounds them. They provide milk, oil, food, rope, and matting, and each tree produces about one hundred nuts annually.

The pandanus, or lauhala is one of the most striking features of the islands. Its funereal foliage droops in Hilo, and it was it that I noticed all along the windward coast as having a most striking peculiarity of aerial roots which the branches send down to the ground, and which I now see have large cup-shaped spongioles. These air-roots are props, and appear to vary in length from three to twelve feet, according tothe situation of the tree. There is one variety I saw to-day, the "screwpine," which is really dangerous if one approaches it unguardedly. It is a whorled pandanus, with long, swordshaped leaves, spirally arranged in three rows, and hard, sawtoothed edges, very sharp. When unbranched as I saw them, they resemble at a distance pine-apple plants thirty times magnified. But the mournful looking trees along the coast and all about Hilo are mostly the Pandanus odoratissimus, a spreading and branching tree which grows fully twenty-five feet high, supports itself among inaccessible rocks by its prop-like roots, and is one of the first plants to appear on the newly-formed Pacific islands." Its foliage is singularly dense, although it is borne in tufts of a quantity of long yucca-like leaves on the branches. The shape of the tree is usually circular. The mournful look is caused by the leaves taking a downward and very decided droop in the middle. At present each tuft of leaves has in its centre an object like a green pine-apple. This contains the seeds which are eatable, as is also the fleshy part of the drupes. It is from the seeds of this tree and their coverings that the brilliant orange leis, or garlands of the natives, are made. The soft white case of the leaves and the terminal buds can also be eaten. The leaves are used for thatching, and their tough longitudinal fibres for mats and robes. There is another kind, the Pandanus vacoa, the same as is used for making sugar bags in Mauritius, but I have not seen it.

I think the banana comes next in beauty, and I see it in perfection here for the first time, as those in Honolulu grow in "yards," and are tattered by the winds. It transports me into the tropics in feeling, as I am already in them in fact, and satisfies all my cravings for something which shall represent and epitomize their luxuriance, as well as for simplicity and grace in vegetable form. And here it is everywhere with its shining shade, its smooth, fat, green stem, its crown of great curling leaves from four to ten feet long, and its heavy cluster of a whorl of green or golden fruit, with a pendant, purple cone of undeveloped blossom below. It is of the tropics, tropical; a thing of beauty, gladness, and sunshine. It is indigenous here, and wild, but never bears seeds, and is propagated solely by suckers, which spring up when the parent plant has fruited, or by cuttings. It bears seed, strange to say, only (so far as is known) in the Andaman Islands, where, stranger still, it springs up as a second growth wherever the forests are cleared. Go to the palm-house, find the Musa sapientum, magnify it ten times, glorify it immeasurably, and you will have a laggard idea of the banana groves of Hilo.

The ground is carpeted with a grass of preternaturally vivid green and rankness of growth, mixed with a handsome fern, with a caudex a foot high, the Sadleria cyathoides, and another of exquisite beauty, the Microlepia tenuifolia, which are said to be the commonest ferns on Hawaii.

Hilo is a lively place for such a mere village; so many natives are stirring about, and dashing along the narrow roads on horseback. This is a large airy house, simple and tasteful, with pretty engravings and water-colour drawings on the walls. There is a large bath-house in the garden, into which a pure, cool stream has been led, and the gurgle and music of many such streams fill the sweet, soft air. There is a saying among sailors, "Follow a Pacific shower, and it leads you to Hilo." Indeed there is a rainfall of from thirteen to sixteen feet annually. These deep verandahs are very pleasant, for they render window-blinds unnecessary; so there is nothing of that dark stuffiness which makes indoor life a trial in the closed, shadeless Australian houses.

Miss Karpe, my travelling companion, is a lady of great energy, and an adept in the art of travelling. Undismayed by three days of sea-sickness, and the prospect of the tremendous journey to the volcano to-morrow, she extemporised a ride to the Anuenue Falls on the Wailuku this afternoon, and I weakly accompanied her, a burly policeman being oar guide. The track is only a scramble among rocks and holes, concealed by grass and ferns, and we had to cross a stream, full of great holes, several times. The Fall itself is very pretty, 110 feet in one descent, with a cavernous shrine behind the water, filled with ferns. There were large ferns all round the Fall, and a jungle of luxuriant tropical shrubs of many kinds. Three miles above this Fall there are the Pei-pei Falls, very interesting geologically. The Wailuku River is the boundary between the two great volcanoes, and its waters, it is supposed by learned men, have often flowed over heated beds of basalt, with the result of columnar formation radiating from the bottom of the stream. This structure is sometimes beautifully exhibited in the form of Gothic archways, through which the torrent pours into a basin, surrounded by curved, broken, and half-sunk prisms, black and prominent amidst the white foam of the Falls. In several places the river has just pierced the beds of lava., and in one passes under a thick rock bridge, several hundred feet wide.

Near the Anuenue Fall we stopped at a native house, outside which a woman, in a rose-coloured chemise, was stringing roses for a necklace, while her husband pounded the kalo root on a board. His only clothing was the malo, a narrow strip of cloth wound round the loins, and passed between the legs. This was the only covering worn by men before the introduction of Christianity. Females wore the pau, a short petticoat made of tapa, which reached from the waist to the knees. To our eyes, the brown skin produces nearly the effect of clothing.

Everything was new and interesting, but the ride was spoiled by my insecure seat in my saddle, and the increased pain in my spine which riding produced. In crossing one stream the horses have to make a downward jump from a rock, and I slipped round my horse's neck. Indeed on the way back I felt that on the ground of health I must give up the volcano, as I would never consent to be carried to it, like Lady Franklin, in a litter. When we returned, Mr. Severance suggested that it would be much better for me to follow the Hawaiian fashion, and ride astride, and put his saddle on the horse. It was only my strong desire to see the volcano which made me consent to a mode of riding against which I have so strong a prejudice, but the result of the experiment is that I shall visit Kilauea thus or not at all. The native women all ride astride, on ordinary occasions in full sacks, or holokus, and on gala days in the pau, the gay, winged dress which I described in writing from Honolulu. A great many of the foreign ladies on Hawaii have adopted the Mexican saddle also, for greater security to themselves and ease to their horses, on the steep and perilous bridle-tracks, but they wear full Turkish trousers and jauntily-made dresses reaching to the ankles.

It appears that Hilo is free from the universally admitted nuisance of morning calls. The hours are simple—eight o'clock breakfasts, one o'clock dinners, six o'clock suppers. If people want anything with you, they come at any hour of the day, but if they only wish to be sociable, the early evening is the recognized time for "calling." After supper, when the day's work is done, people take their lanterns and visit each other, either in the verandahs or in the cheerful parlours which open upon them. There are no door-bells, or solemn announcements by servants of visitors' names, or " not-at-homes." If people are in their parlours, it is presumed that they receive their friends. Several pleasant people came in this evening. They seem to take great interest in two ladies going to the volcano without an escort, but no news has been received from it lately, and I fear that it is not very active, as no glare is visible to-night. Mr. Thompson, the pastor of the small foreign congregation here, called on me. He is a very agreeable, accomplished man, and is acquainted with Dr. Holland and several of my New England friends. He kindly brought his wife's riding-costume for my trip to Kilauea. The Rev. Titus Coan, one of the earliest and most successful missionaries to Hawaii, also called. He is a tall, majestic-looking man, physically well fitted for the extraordinary exertions he has undergone in mission work, and intellectually also, I should think, for his face expresses great mental strength, and nothing of the weakness of an enthusiast. He has admitted about 12,000 persons into the Christian Church. He is the greatest authority on volcanoes on the islands, and his enthusiastic manner and illuminated countenance as he spoke of Kilauea, have raised my expectations to the highest pitch. We are prepared for to-morrow, having engaged a native named Upa, who boasts a little English, as our guide. He provides three horses and himself for three days for the sum of thirty dollars.

I. L. B.


Letter 5: The Volcano of Kilauea


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