The Hawaiians considered the plant the sacred symbol of the god Lono and was an emblem of divine power. The green leaves, which are called la'i, were used in rituals of cleansing and rendering free of evil spirits by the kahuna pule heiau, the temple priests, and in rituals of healing by the kahuna lapa'au, the medical experts. Ti leaves were used to oki, to cut and to release, whatever bound spirits to this world, to allow them to go on to their proper place. Modern-day kahuna, priests, still wear a lei of two ti leaves tied together at the back of the neck or carry a single leaf, almost as an emblem of their profession or rank.
Women who were menstruating were kept isolated from the rest of the family in a small house called the hale pe'a, which was located in the family's housing compound. During this period of confinement, they wore lei fashioned from the leaves to protect them from evil influences. If it was necessary for the women to travel during these periods, and especially if they had to cross Pele's domain, the lei la'i went with them. (It was believed the ti leaves would invoke the protection of the volcano goddess, Pele.)
Ti leaves were needed to decorate the altar honoring the hula goddess Laka in the halau hula or hula school, and no ceremonial serving of awa was complete without a properly woven base of ti leaves to support the
In keeping with its spiritual symbolism, the ti plant has power over evil.
Hawaiians would plant ti around their homes and temples to keep bad spirits away and hold good the fortune inside. Some people say ti planted to the right of one's front door wards off evil spirits. The plants also grow untended in the lower forests.
On Molokai, the mountain pool at Halawa was said to be the home of a mo'o, water dragon. Before swimming in the pool, it was advised that one should throw in a ti leaf and see whether it sank or floated. If the leaf sank, it was not a good day to swim. The mo'o was awake.
Ti was grown mostly for its useful shiny green leaves. The leaves were used for wrapping, cooking and storing food. In the imu oven or over hot coals ti leaves insulated food from the hot stones and imparted a unique flavor as the food cooked.
La'i was tied to the upper edge of a hukilau fishing net to frighten fish into staying inside the net. With the hukilau, the fish were herded into a circle where they were caught and pulled up. A tuft of la'i was tied to a luhe'e octopus lure to conceal the sharp bone hook.
Shelters in the forest were often thatched with la’i, as were those in the lowland areas where pili grass did not grow. Structures in the heiau temple complex, which were sacred to the god Lono, were also thatched with la'i.
Temporary sandals were braided from the leaves and worn to protect the feet when crossing rough lava. La'i was tied to fish netting to make rain capes primarily for fowlers who caught birds in the mountain. Originally, the softened leaf stems were used as wefts with the leafy portion forming a thatch on the outer surface of the plaited stems.
Toy canoes could be made from the leaves and in one legend; the king of Kauai used a toy canoe to decide which of his sons to send on a search for their oldest brother. The leaves
were also used to line the holua sled runs down the steep mountain slopes, helping to make the bumpy run more slippery and providing some cushion for the sled runners.
Ti leaves were often worn around the neck and as wristlets and anklets as decoration and as protective charms. Modern lei makers have developed a number of different ways to braid and twist the leaves into wreaths for neck and head and they are an inexpensive, lovely alternative to flower lei.
Sometimes the leaves were used as temporary wrapping for gifts and offerings to the gods. A special lei is still carried in a bag fashioned from ti leaves. In war, a kahuna carried a stalk of ti into battle and sometimes used it as a flag of truce.
Often the la'i were made into whisks to fan the Ali’i, chiefs. On ceremonial occasions a stalk of ti was carried to announce the presence of royalty. Over time the stalk evolved into the kahili, a polished wood pole topped with intricate feather-work that resembled the ti stalk. This royal standard accompanied the Ali’i and proclaimed a chief‚s lineage and rank.
Ti leaves also played a role in Hawaiian history. After King Kamehameha I died, Queen Ka’ahumanu (who had declared herself Kuhina Nui, regent and chief advisor for the young king Liholiho) was trying to abolish the kapu system and erode the power of the priestly class as well as establish her own power through the new king. In a letter to Liholiho, she urged him, "E pale la Ei i ko akua ke hiki aku i Kona." (Place a shield of ti leaves before your god when you arrive in Kona.)
By placing a "shield of ti leaves," the young king would be symbolically cutting the ties between himself (and through him the people of the land) and the war god Kuka'ilimoku. The king would be announcing that the kapu, rituals and restrictions, which were observed in reverence of the god, would no longer be done. The god, in turn, would be released from any obligation to help the king or his people. The king would be announcing, in effect, that the "contract" between the god and the people was ended.
Medicinally, a young leaf, one that was not yet unfolded, was used for bandaging a wound. Lei for the head made from the wetted leaves were used for relief from headaches and fever. (The coolness of the leaf had a therapeutic value, it was said.) For a "dry fever", one not accompanied by perspiration, the midrib of the leaf was removed and the blades of the leaf tied end-to-end to make a belt. This was tied around the chest or abdomen and repeated as needed to induce sweating and to break the fever. For a backache, a warm stone was wrapped with several leaves and held against some part of the back.
The swollen roots contain sugar and were baked for a sweet and as a famine food. A mild alcoholic beer could be brewed from the roots and later it was the main ingredient for okole hau, a distilled alcoholic drink popular after Western introduction.
In modern times the plants are used as ornamentals and vast amounts of cuttings are prepared for sale to tourists to take home as houseplants. Marketers call the Ti plant " The Hawaiian Good Luck Plant."