‘A‘ali‘i (Dodonaea viscosa) – Your first native Hawaiian plant

Of course, I can only guess, but if I did, I would guess there are many more people in Hawai‘i who have had a native Hawaiian plant in their garden than those who have a native Hawaiian plant in their garden. And, I think I know why – they picked the wrong first plant. Perhaps, they were seduced by the fragrant flowers of a nā‘ū or the cartoon-like form of an ālula. In any case, they chose one of the more difficult to keep native plants, it died, and they concluded that native Hawaiian plants are weak, difficult to keep, or just not worth the trouble. Sad but not surprising. If you look at most frontyards in Hawai‘i, they are filled with weeds. Not the weeds everyone would recognize and pull up, but the weeds sold at garden shops, home-improvement factory stores, and weekend plant sales. They are showy plants that are nearly impossible to kill; plumeria, bougainvillea, shower trees, … And, most people love them for this very reason. So, how can I convince them (you) to give native Hawaiian plants another try? By recommending a native Hawaiian weed – an ‘a‘ali‘i. ‘A‘ali‘i has all the characteristics a black-thumbed gardener is looking for. It is showy with it multicolored (green, red and yellow) leaves and fruits (dozens of different colors). It grows fast, reaching 3-4 feet tall in a year or less. It has a wide tolerance to moisture and light levels. And, (almost) no garden pest can kill it (or even bothers to attack it). There are even different forms of ‘a‘ali‘i including a prostrate variety that never grows above your knee, and taller ‘a‘ali‘i that can be pruned into an attractive small tree. Many restoration biologists such as Art Medeiros at Auwahi on Maui use hundreds of ‘a‘ali‘i as a pioneer species in their projects because of its hardiness, rapid growth, and ability to produce hundreds of land-grabbing seedlings in one to two years. 'Bullet-proof' is the term often used by these scientists. So, if you’re a person who has given up on native Hawaiian plants, please, just one more time, try an ‘a‘ali‘i.

Habitat & Appearance: In Hawai‘i, ‘a‘ali‘i are most common on dry, wind-swept ridges. However, they can occasionally be found quite close to the ocean and are not uncommon in the understory of some mesic forests as well as the subalpine areas of Maui and Hawai‘i. As mentioned above, they vary in height depending upon their location and this difference often breeds true (i.e., it’s a genetic difference, not just environment). ‘A‘ali‘i leaves are normally shiny and green with some turning yellow or red prior to dying and falling from the plant. I have seen ‘a‘ali‘i with near-white, light-green, yellow, pink, red, and purple fruits. There is some debate as to whether there is more than one species of ‘a‘ali‘i in Hawai‘i based on the shape of the fruit and other characters (Joel Lau, personal communication). All the ‘a‘ali‘i I have grown have always been dioecious (i.e., a single plant has either male flowers producing pollen or female flowers producing fruits). However, there are reports of ‘a‘ali‘i with both flower types on a single plant. To be safe, if you are growing ‘a‘ali‘i primarily for its colorful fruits, it’s best to have more than one in your garden.

(Top to Bottom) Nānākuli ‘a‘ali‘i with fruits. (Wait until the fruits are dry and brown before collecting.) ‘A‘ali‘i male flowers (photograph courtesy of G. D. Carr ©). A‘ali‘i seedlings with both thin seed leaves (below) and wider true leaves. Lei made from ‘a‘ali‘i leaves and fruits (from hawaiilog.exblog.jp ©). Lobate lac scale (photograph courtesy of Jeffrey W. Lotz ©.)

‘A‘ali‘i in Hawaiian Culture: ‘A‘ali‘i is a prominent plant in Hawaiian culture and is often mentioned in oli and mele. In the ‘Ōlelo Noeau there are three phrases that make reference to the resilience of ‘a‘ali‘i against the strong winds where it often grows. These were used as a boast by people wishing to convey their power or steadfastness or as a description of a true comrade. In ancient times, the hard wood of ‘a‘ali‘i was used for hale construction as well as an assortment of tools and weapons. Fruits were boiled or ground-up in water to produce a dye for kapa; the fruits were also used in medicine. ‘A‘ali‘i leaves and fruits are still popular in lei today.

Collecting Seeds: Ripe (i.e., dry and brown) ‘a‘ali‘i fruits can be found from spring through fall. Each fruit normally holds 2-4 small (2-3 mm), hard, black, round seeds. In my experience, fruit color does not breed true in ‘a‘ali‘i. On numerous occasions, I have collected seed from plants with dark red fruits only to get offspring with yellow, pink, or red fruits. Still, if your main interest is ‘a‘ali‘i fruits, I encourage you to collect seeds from only those plants with the desired fruit color; hopefully, you’ll have better luck than me.

Growing from Seed: Myself and others have used several methods for germinating ‘a‘ali‘i seeds. Of course, the slowest means is to just sow the seeds in clean media; usually I use Method Two or Three (i.e., 1-2 seeds in individual containers). Unfortunately, with this method, you may be waiting weeks and the germination will be sporadic. Soaking the seeds for 1-2 days in tapwater first or placing the sown seeds in a mist chamber often hastens sprouting to a few days but not always. Manual scarification (tough on the fingers!) or hotwater scarification (people argue about temperature; I use 180oF) often gives the shortest and most synchronous sprouting. In all these cases, the trick is to get water through the seedcoat. If you’re observant, you can see when you’ve been successful. For example, after treating my seeds with hot water, I let them soak overnight. In the morning, I sow those seeds that have swollen to 2-3 times their original diameter. For the rest, I repeat the hotwater treatment and, again, soak them overnight. Normally, after 3-4 rounds, all my seeds have been sown and I can expect them to sprout within a week. ‘A‘ali‘i seedlings are pretty tough and usually remain pest-free in the nursery. You can hasten their development with foliar or slow-release fertilizer. After they reach 6-10 inches in height, they are ready for your garden.

Growing from Cuttings: I have never been successful in growing ‘a‘ali‘i from cuttings.

Growth in the Garden: As mentioned above, ‘a‘ali‘i grow fast. In 1-2 years you should have a 3-5 foot tall plant (unless, of course, it’s a prostrate variety) that is flowering. Avoid the temptation to water your ‘a‘ali‘i. While some varieties naturally occur in mesic forests, most prefer a dry climate; that means they’ll do just fine without you babying them. In fact, too much watering may promote fungal or bacterial attacks on the roots that normally wouldn’t happen. ‘A‘ali‘i can last a long time (10 years or more) but they don’t last forever. Therefore, collect and store away (in your refrigerator) some seed from your plants to use as eventual replacements.

Diseases & Pests: Grashoppers and a variety of other insects will, on occasion, chew on ‘a‘ali‘i leaves. Spraying with malathion or some other insecticide will keep these at bay. However, to be honest, I normally let this type of damage go since it is not life-threatening.

Recently, the introduced lobate lac scale (Paratachardina pseudolobata) has become a serious pest on ‘a‘ali‘i, capable of killing even large adult plants. If you discover this scale insect on one or two branches of your ‘a‘ali‘i, try to remove them by hand or prune and throw away the branch(es). However, if the infestation is widespread, the only effective treatment to-date is spraying or root drenching with a systemic insecticide like imidacloprid.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū