Featured Article: March 2023

Dr. Celia Smith on the “First Lady of Limu”

Written by: Alexandrya Robinson, UHM MOP student 

2022 was designated “The Year of Limu,” by Governor David Ige, but what is limu and why was this proclamation so important? Limu is a broad term used to describe edible plants in both freshwater and seawater. Native Hawaiians, or kānaka maoli in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, uselimu not just as food supplement alongside fish and poi but also in ceremonial practices, medicine, and even to inform kūpuna of the health of the ahupuaʻa. 

The importance of limu dates back to the first governing system in Hawaiʻi. The kapu system, amongst other things, dictated what foods could be eaten, how they were prepared and gathered, and who could consume them. Foods were important links to the gods and used in ceremonial practices. Limu also served as an important substitution in the cases where certain foods could not be consumed. Women were the primary ones to hold the knowledge of limu and its harvesting around the islands. 

There are many species of limu that were significant for kānaka maoli. For example, limu kala was used for cleansing and ho‘oponopono (a cultural practice for resolving conflict). Other species like limu kohu and limu palahalaha were important food staples. This knowledge of limu and its uses was not always as readily available as it is today through a simple Google search. Much of the current dissemination of knowledge is attributed to the work of Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott, often referred to as the “First Lady of Limu.”

Dr. Celia Smith, professor of BOT 480 – Algal Diversity and Evolution, was one of those touched by Dr. Abbott’s work. Dr. Smith testified along with thousands of others before the University of Hawaiʻi Board of Regents this January in an effort to rename the Life Sciences Building in Dr. Abbott’s honor for her work in ethnobotany. Dr. Smith had a rough estimate of the number of students Dr. Abbott would have taught during her work at the university. “She taught in the ethnobotany and that led to 10 years of people… standing room only, listening to her stories about how her family from Maui used the native plants and their family traditions from her Hawaiian culture to enlightened a generation of students… She taught maybe 1,500 students in a 10-year period.” 

Dr. Abbott was not only a teacher in the classroom but an author of eight books and over one hundred research papers where she classified more than 200 different algae species. Dr. Abbott even had her own niche genus of red algae, Abbottella. “Dr. Abbott’s interests were in describing new species because taxonomy and systematics were her focus,” said Dr. Smith. When Dr. Abbott returned to the University of Hawaiʻi after a successful career in marine botany at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, “there was no position for her to come back to in the day, but we did have an endowed chair and so she came back as the endowed professor, holding one of, at that time, four endowed chairs at the University [of Hawaiʻi].” 

Dr. Abbott was a pioneer in her field becoming the first kānaka woman to earn a doctorate in a science field, the first female full professor and minority professor at Stanford, and she shaped the ethnobotany degree pathway at the University of Hawaiʻi. Due to her many accomplishments and dedication to marine botany Dr. Abbott was given the Gilbert Morgan Smith medal by the National Academy of Sciences, a highly coveted award that is the highest honor in the field of marine botany. However, that wasn’t Dr. Abbott’s only award for her work. Dr. Abbott also received the Darbaker Prize from the Botanical Society of America, the Charles Reed Bishop Medal, and she was named a Living Treasure by Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaiʻi.

Some of Dr. Abbott’s papers can be accessed through the Thomas Hale Hamilton Library website and community organizations such as Limu Hui Network that are continuing the 2022 Year of the Limu energy into 2023. Continuing the focus on the intersection between science and culture is important for well-rounded research that benefits symbiotically. Without intersectionality science fails to flourish, Dr. Smith recounts of a chemist who took only a part of his own knowledge base by taking some of the limu kohu, “[He] couldn’t believe that anyone would eat it because it’s so toxic… he apparently went out and found some on the reef and just, you know, snatched it up and took a bite. I don’t know how much but it was enough for him to not feel well, checked himself into a hospital.” What was missing? The processing after collection, done by kānaka. “Hawaiians process the plant when they eat it. They first collect it, and then clean it under fresh water so that there is no rubble or stones that might be somehow anchored to it, and then they roll it up into little balls that you can find in fish stores now.”

During the processing of limu kohu using traditional methods, the halogenated compounds that limu kohu creates as a defense are degraded making it safe for consumption. The book, “Limu: An Ethnobotanical Study of Some Hawaiian Seaweeds,” by Dr. Abbott details this process of preparation of limu kohu as does the book “The Limu Eater” by Heather J. Fortner. It was the lack of understanding the integral cultural practices that this scientist missed, not once but twice according to Dr. Smith. This story may be humorous but cautionary and illustrates the importance of applying cultural knowledge in a holistic way. 

Learning from those before us is crucial for further scientific development. Dr. Abbott was well loved, respected, and decorated as a scientist for her foundational work in marine botany and ethnobotany. Her passing in 2010 was not the end of her legacy, which will continue to be honored with the dedication of the Isabella Aiona Abbott  Life Sciences Building. Continuing Dr. Abbott’s commitment to Hawaiʻi and the marine species that live here is to continue to learn about what she held dear. Dr. Smith describes perfectly what this means, “To be able to live here [Hawaiʻi] I think is a gift outright. And to not want to honor it and add to the strengths of the traditions that are here in any possible small little way that you can add to them I think is a real lost opportunity. The opportunities that we have to move our community to a better place by paying attention to the intersection between science and engagement with our local community, to me it’s just so important that we do that here.”