Photo: Limu kala
Limu kala is being proposed as the State Limu at the legislature this session. - Photo: Kim Moa, courtesy of KUA

For many of us, the fragrance of limu brings back memories of family get-togethers. In the days of our ancestors, limu, poi, and fish were considered significant components of a nutritionally balanced diet and were part of our food security. It was normal for Kānaka Maoli households to always have limu on hand.

Queen Liliʻuokalani loved limu huluhulu waena so much so that she introduced it to her residence in Waikīkī from Maui – and then placed a kapu on gathering it from there. While in England, Queen Emma wrote in letters of her longing for the taste of limu.

Beyond culinary practices, certain types of limu had significant cultural and ceremonial significance.

Among the first organisms named in the Kumulipo are varieties of limu, including limu kala. Limu kala was one of the most commonly utilized types of limu in ceremonies. Kala in Hawaiian means to free, untie, unburden or absolve. People are familiar with using kala when saying, “E kala mai iaʻu” to apologize.

Limu kala symbolically unbound or loosened human beings from offenses committed against one another or against the akua. Due to this particular meaning, limu kala played an essential part in rituals.

During a purification ceremony, a kahuna pule heiau would mix seawater, limu kala, and sometimes ʻōlena (turmeric) in a bowl and sprinkle the congregation. This ceremony was mainly done when people had been exposed to a corpse or something that made them ritually unclean. Before the start of ʻōpelu season, fishermen would gather at a kūʻula (heiau specific to fishermen), and a kahuna would offer a prayer and then purify them before they went out to sea. This same mixture was also used to purify places that had become ritually unclean.

Limu kala played a vital part in traditional forgiveness rituals. When there was a dispute or harsh feelings within a family, the family would conduct a hoʻoponopono. When the issue was resolved, limu kala would then be eaten. If a family or community had wronged their ʻaumakua or the akua, an aha ʻāina kala hala (feast for forgiving offenses) would be prepared. Symbolic foods were eaten including puaʻa, āholehole, moa, kalo, and limu kala.

After a war, limu kala was sent as an offering of peace. When Keawemaʻuhili sought peace with Kamehameha I, he sent two bundles. One bundle contained white stones, while the other held fish wrapped in wet limu kala. The white stones symbolized peace. The fish came from Keawemaʻuhili’s fishponds and the limu kala, besides preserving the fish from rotting, signified Keawemaʻuhili’s willingness to move on from the past.

Our ancestors had a welcoming custom – when they had important visitors, kalo, fish, niu (coconut), kō (sugar cane), maiʻa (banana), ʻinamona (kukui nut relish), and limu specific to the area would be offered to the guest. This protocol was also practiced when families from different parts of an island would gather for a special occasion. As women were the only ones allowed to pick limu, they would bring limu from their specific region to share how ‘ono their limu was with each other’s families.

There were also cultural limits to some types of limu.

In moʻolelo, sea creatures have a hierarchy similar to that of Kānaka Maoli. Among the sharks, Kua was a prominent shark chief who led his band of warrior sharks from Kahiki to Hawaiʻi. Kua was also known as Kawohikūikamoana and was a benevolent gigantic red shark. Kua had a son, Pakaiea. When Pakaiea was birthed, his father wrapped him in a blanket of limu pakaiea, which gave Pakaiea his brown and green markings. Like his father, Pakaiea was a guardian of distressed fishermen. As a result, limu pakaiea is considered kapu by families whose ‘aumakua is the shark and, thus, not eaten.

Limu was also used in hula performances. Limu pālahalaha was used to make leis and other adornments for hula dancers. ʻIolani Luahine, for example, wore a lei poʻo of limu while performing a hula hoe (canoe paddling dance). But limu līpeʻapeʻa was kapu to any hula dancer. Because limu līpeʻapeʻa was primarily found in caverns, it was said that any hula dancer who ate that particular limu would never be able to understand the hidden meanings, or kaona, of any mele.

While we generally think of limu as solely referring to seaweed, limu has broader applications, and also refers to other types of water plants, mosses, zoanthids (corals closely related to sea anemones), and algae. A zoanthid known as “limu make o Hāna” was utilized by Maui warriors for its highly toxic effects. Before going to war, this type of limu would be applied to spear tips so that a mere scratch from the point could prove to be instantly fatal. Today, it is being studied as a cancer treatment.

For too long limu has been underappreciated for its role in our culture, gastronomy, medicine and food sustainability. With 2022 now proclaimed as the “Year of the Limu,” limu is finally being recognized for its role in helping to feed our identity as well as our bodies.