‘Ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum) – An edible native Hawaiian plant

Back in 2015, I was helping Mālama Learning Center sell native Hawaiian plants at the Mākeke Kapolei. It was tough! Lots of people would stop by the MLC booth to take a look at the plants, but few would pull out their wallet and buy one. The difficulty was that the overwhelming majority of people at the Mākeke are, understandably, thinking with their stomach. They are there to buy fresh vegetables for tonight’s dinner, not a native plant for their garden. So, Sayo Costantino, MLC Education Specialist, and I decided to use this mindset to our advantage. Sayo often demonstrates healthy eating habits and recipes at the Mākeke. One recipe is a very simple-to-make Cucumber Tsukemono. What if we modified the recipe by replacing the cucumber with ‘ākulikuli, a native plant Hawaiians ate in ancient times? Would it taste just as good? And, more importantly, would it help us sell ‘ākulikuli? After eliminating the salt from the recipe (because ‘ākulikuli is already quite salty), we gave our idea a try at the September 10th, 2015 Mākeke. It worked! ‘Ākulikuli Tsukemono won’t be featured anytime soon on Iron Chef. However, comments from the people persuaded to try the new dish by the MLC staff and interns were overwhelmingly positive. And, MLC sold a bunch of ‘ākulikuli plants that day!

Here’s Sayo’s recipe: Harvest about 2 cups of ‘ākulikuli leaves, and soak them in a gallon of freshwater for 1 to 2 hours; this will leach out some of the salt within the leaves. Drain away the water, and place the leaves in a bowl. Mix together 1 cup sugar, ¾ cup white vinegar, and ¼ cup rice vinegar. Pour the sugar and vinegar mix over the leaves. Refrigerate or keep on ice for at least one hour. Enjoy!

Habitat & Appearance: Indigenous to nearly all the Hawaiian Islands, ‘ākulikuli is found throughout the tropics. In Hawai‘i, wild ‘ākulikuli grow extremely close to the ocean, along rocky and sandy coastlines as well as in marshes and lagoons. Today, it has often been displaced from these habitats by the introduced pickleweed (Batis maritima) which is sometimes, unfortunately, called ‘ākulikuli kai. ‘Ākulikuli is a prostrate herb with fleshy leaves and stems. The stems of many, but not all ‘ākulikuli, are red or partially red.‘Ākulikuli produces small (up to ½ inch across), white to magenta, star-shaped flowers. The fruits are dry capsules holding many tiny seeds surrounded by blackened sepals.

(Top to Bottom) Mature plant with flowers. Ripe fruits and seeds. Young seedlings.

‘Ākulikuli in Hawaiian Culture: Hawaiians ate ‘ākulikuli raw or cooked (Merlin 1999), I suspect, as a less tasty alternative to limu (Hawaiian marine algae). Today, people are adding ‘ākulikuli to salads.

Collecting Seeds: Wild ‘ākulikuli flower and fruit throughout the year, only stopping during periods of drought. Cultivated (and lightly-watered) ‘ākulikuli flower and fruit continuously. Collect the ripe fruits when they are dry and brown to black. Not all fruits contain seed. Generally, the plumper fruits with a visible tan-colored central cap (see photograph to right) contain good seed. To prevent going home empty-handed, gently crush the fruit and tip it upside-down. If it contains seeds, they will fall out into your hand or container. The seeds are very tiny (1 mm), black, and kidney-shaped. I have yet to store ‘ākulikuli seed, so, I cannot say how long they remain viable in the refrigerator.

Growing from Seed: No one I know grows ‘ākulikuli from seed – it’s just so much easier and quicker to grow it from cuttings! However, if you decide to try, here’s how I do it. Surface sow the tiny seeds in a pot containing a 1:1:1:1 mix of sand, perlite, black cinder, and peat moss. Water the pot daily. Seeds begin sprouting in a week or two. Separate and repot the tiny seedlings when they have 4 to 6 leaves. It takes several months for the seedlings to grow to a significant size (3 inches across); controlled-release or dilute liquid fertilizer helps quicken their growth.

Growing from Cuttings: Root ‘ākulikuli cuttings using either Method One (preferred) or Method Two. No rooting hormones are necessary. It is also possible to root cuttings outside of a container or mist bench (i.e., a shady spot within your nursery). Plant the cuttings vertically in a 1:1 mix of vermiculite and perlite, and water daily. The cuttings root incredibly fast – in as little as a week – but give them another week or two for further root growth. A controlled-release or dilute liquid fertilizer will spur rapid growth of the new plants. Your ‘ākulikuli should be ready to plant out after one to two months care in the nursery. ‘Ākulikuli cuttings can also be rooted in-situ using Method Three.

Growth in the Garden: I know a couple of people who have tried using ‘ākulikuli as a groundcover. Ultimately, the plants were infested with mealybugs, eaten by snails and slugs, or displaced by weeds. Therefore, I recommend you grow ‘ākulikuli in a container or a rock garden where you can easily control any pests. ‘Ākulikuli does best in full sun and will languish under the constant shade of a tree or awning. Despite its halophytic nature, ‘ākulikuli can tolerate frequent waterings provided it is planted in well-draining soil or media. Still, I discourage you from overwatering your ‘ākulikuli because it will lose its natural succulent form and become lanky. Somewhat surprisingly, this native herb can live a long time. I have repeatedly visited wild plants that are today over ten years old. And, ‘ākulikuli can grow quite large, sometimes several feet across. Unless you have the space, I encourage you to occasionally prune your ‘ākulikuli and either eat the pruned leaves (see recipe above) or root the cuttings to make new plants (for all your friends).

Diseases & Pests: ‘Ākulikuli are occasionally attacked by sucking insects, most commonly mealybugs. Repeated sprayings of horticultural oil will get rid of these pests. Be sure to lift up the stems so you can spray any bugs hidden between the stem and the soil. Snails and slugs sometimes become a problem, particularly if you have improperly planted your ‘ākulikuli in a cool moist location. I suspect wild ‘ākulikuli remain free of these pests because of the frequent salt spray they experience. Therefore, I encourage you to experiment with, perhaps, weekly sprayings of seawater as a prophylactic.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū