The tale of Hawai‘i’s two scented laua‘e, Microsorum spectrum and Microsorum grossum: Solving the mystery of their history and restoring indigenous knowledge, using the synergism of Linnaean and Polynesian taxonomy.
Background: This study quelled a fervent disagreement by restoring indigenous knowledge. The issue was—had the laua‘e fern, Microsorum grossum, been part of Hawaiian culture “since earliest times,” as asserted by certain cultural specialists, or was it introduced to Hawai‘i after 1900, as inferred from historical records? Assuming both expert opinions were correct, I surmised that there had been another plant species named laua‘e prior to 1900, the identity of which had become obscure.
Methods: This hypothesis was tested by reconstructing the history of Hawaiian laua‘e using a dual-disciplinary approach—drawing on knowledge referenced by Linnaean and indigenous plant names—to answer three questions. Was there evidence that M. grossum grew in Hawai‘i before 1900? If not, was there evidence of another species named laua‘e before 1900? If so, what was it?
Results: Records of botanical surveys provided no evidence that M. grossum was present in Hawai‘i before 1919, and the distribution of Polynesian names for the species was consistent with this finding. English and Hawaiian literature of the 19th century evidenced an unidentified plant, named ”lauae,” that was herbaceous and very fragrant. Observations from field biologists led to the inference that this was Microsorum spectrum, and its Hawaiian name, laua‘e, was confirmed by handwritten notes on an herbarium specimen.
Conclusion: Awareness of the laua‘e maoli ‘native laua‘e’, M. spectrum, faded as its populations shrank, and the introduced laua‘e hānai ‘adopted laua‘e’, M. grossum, eventually supplanted the cultural role of its predecessor.
Keywords: Ethnobotany, plant name, fern, historical reconstruction, cultural memory, comparative linguistics.
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