“Are those pineapples on that tree?”
No, you say gently, mentally forgiving the bewildered tourist before proceeding to tell him that the native Hawaiian hala tree (Pandanus tectorius) has many important cultural uses, but festooning a ham with its pineapple look-alike fruit isn’t one of them. Although the hala fruit was indeed eaten in times of famine in Hawai'i, the edible part wasn't considered all that tasty.
Hala is popular as a native landscaping tree for good reasons. It adds a tropical touch to your landscape -- the distinctive prop roots add to the visual interest -- and it makes a handsome shade, accent or a specimen tree. It does well below 2,000 feet elevation; it's relatively easy to propagate and stands tough against salt and wind exposure. Hala can grow quite big – 10 to 30 feet, with a spreading habit up to 40 feet wide – so if you do plant it, give it plenty of space.
Since ancient times, Puna, Hawai'i, has been famous for its dense forests of hala that fill the air with the perfume of blossoms and ripe fruit. There the native 'ekaha (Bird’s Nest Fern) grow to giant specimens on many branches of towering hala trees – quite an impressive sight, as you can see in this photo taken off Old Government Road on the way to Kapoho.
As a child I saw hala trees in my coastal neighborhood but I didn’t really know much about them other than that I needed to stay away from the leaves, which have some nasty spines on the edges. However, this past weekend I had a wonderful experience learning about the many valuable attributes of hala from Aha Puhala o Puna, a lau hala weaving club in Puna that generously shares its mana'o (ideas) with the community.
Club members guided beginners – more than 40 of us – through the process of cleaning, de-thorning, softening, and stripping the leaves so that they could be woven into a variety of simple items such as bracelets, slippers, even Christmas ornaments. I knew I’d be all thumbs at weaving, but nonetheless I’m so proud of the fan I made – suitable for taking to Merrie Monarch, don’t you think?
The fibrous sections -- “keys” -- of the fruit are made into lei that traditionally symbolize transformation; a good friend gave me one because she knew of some big changes that occurred recently in my life. The fruit slowly changes from orangey to grey-brown and hardens – a reminder that Hawaiian wisdom is born of the observation of nature.
And, just in case, here’s one more reason to plant hala. There’s the old Hawaiian magic of using the pollen from the male flower as an aphrodisiac – you’re supposed to dust your intended lover with it. At the very least it will get his or her attention. Just in case.