‘Ala‘ala wai nui (Peperomia tetraphylla) – for those without a garden

My BIG Assumption for this website is that you HAVE a garden into which you can plant the native Hawaiian plants I’m promoting here. But, what if you don’t? What if you live in an apartment or condominium without even the tiniest lānai? Maybe, you have a yard, but the landlord or building association prohibits you from putting any plants in the ground or even outside – anywhere! Or, you live in that frigid place we here in Hawai‘i refer to as 'the mainland.' Well, fortunately, there are a handful of native Hawaiian plants that you can grow indoors, either at home or at your workplace. ‘Ala‘ala wai nui is one of these.

About 15 years ago, Dr. Gregory Koob, a longtime native Hawaiian plant horticulturist here on O‘ahu, conducted a series of experiments to determine which native Hawaiian plants might make good houseplants. He discovered several, most notably pāpala and palapalai. Greg published his results in Hawaii Horticulture, a great local magazine he edited and published from 1998 to 2002. Unfortunately, Greg’s Hawaiian houseplants never made it big in the commercial market (at least, not as big as I and others had hoped). Today, Greg continues to share his knowledge of plants, Hawaiian and otherwise, on his webblog: http://hihort.blogspot.com Many of his Hawaii Horticulture articles are reprinted here, so, I encourage you to check it out. And, if you have any good ideas on how we can make ‘ala‘ala wai nui as common indoors as those ubiquitous weeping figs or spider plants, PLEASE let me know!

Habitat & Appearance: There are 25 native species of ‘ala‘ala wai nui in Hawai‘i, 23 endemic species and 2 indigenous. Peperomia tetraphylla is one of the two indigenous species; it is pantropical. In Hawai‘i (except for Ni‘ihau and Kaho‘olawe), it grows in many places including: dry to wet forest, subalpine forest, and alpine desert; on soil, rocks, and sometimes trees; in the shade and exposed to full sun. P. tetraphylla has small (about ⅓ inch), fleshy leaves that are either pale green or dark green with pale green stripes. Its flower/fruit spike is 1-2 inches long with very tiny flowers and fruits.

(Top to Bottom) Mature Peperomia tetraphylla. Spike with ripe fruits (photograph courtesy of Charles H. Lamoureux & Gerald D. Carr ©). Month-old ‘ala‘ala way nui seedlings.

‘Ala‘ala wai nui in Hawaiian Culture: I’ve only heard one interpretation of the meaning of the name ‘ala‘ala wai nui. Wai nui translates to big water. ‘Ala‘ala translates to “ink sac in octopus or squid,” “scar of a scrofulous sore,” or “aerial tubers of bitter yam” (Pukui & Elbert 1986). None of these meanings seems to make any sense when combined with big water. However, if we presume that ‘ala‘ala is a corruption of ala, then, the translation becomes the path of big water. What is the big water? How about the rain. And, where does the ‘ala‘ala wai nui grow best? Well, it grows best on the side of the rock, the tree, the cliff that faces the path of the rain.

There are a number of medicinal uses documented for ‘ala‘ala wai nui (Abbott 1992, Chun 1994, Handy & Handy 1991). However, ‘ala‘ala wai nui is the Hawaiian name for all the Peperomia species, as well as a native mint, Plectranthus parviflorus. This commonality makes any modern medicinal use problematic. Sometimes, Hawaiians would distinguished the Peperomia species from Plectranthus by using the suffix kāne (man) and wahine (woman), respectively (i.e., ‘ala‘ala wai nui kāne, ‘ala‘ala wai nui wahine). Hawaiians dyed kapa with a grey-green dye from the ash of burn leaves and stems of ‘ala‘ala wai nui kāne (Krauss 2001).

Collecting Seeds: ‘Ala‘ala wai nui fruits are extremely small and sticky when ripe, making it nearly impossible to collect them individually. Rather, it’s much easier to cut off and harvest the entire (or just part, if you’re not greedy) fleshy fruit spike. However, only do this when the fruits are mature. Mature fruits are brown or black and easily stick to your finger when you touch them. Unless you plan to sow the seeds immediately, place the spike in a plastic bag to keep all the fruits contained.

Growing from Seed: (I’ve only propagated ‘ala‘ala wai nui from seed a few times. Therefore, the following germination and seedling experiences may be atypical.) Don’t attempt to extract ‘ala‘ala wai nui seed from its fruit; this would be extremely difficult without a microscope and very fine tools, and, more importantly, it’s not necessary. The easiest way I’ve found to sow fruit/seed is to use a squirt bottle to wash the fruits off the spike and directly into a pot of clean media. The squirt bottle is also useful for dispersing the fruits within the pot, and getting them just the tiniest bit below the media surface. I use a seedling media mix of ⅓ peat moss, ⅓ perlite, and ⅓ black cinder. The peat moss prevents the tiny fruits from getting buried too deep, while the perlite and cinder provide very good drainage. Watered once a day, my seeds started germinating after three months, and continued sprouting for an additional two months. Seedling growth is very slow; the seedlings in the photograph to the right are one month old. Adding liquid or controlled-release fertilizer will speed things up a bit, but don’t expect to have mature plants any time soon.

Growing from Cuttings: Using Method One or Method Two, ‘ala‘ala wai nui cuttings start rooting in one to two months. While waiting for roots, watch for rotting stems and leaves, and remove these before the rot can spread. It’s also possible to grow ‘ala‘ala wai nui from cuttings outside a container or mist chamber. Insert the cutting(s) into a pot of clean, well-drained media, and place the pot in a shaded site. Hand-mist the cutting(s) once or twice a day, and water the pot often enough to keep the media wet.

Growing by Division: This is by far the easiest way to propagate ‘ala‘ala wai nui. Remove the plant from its pot, and gently divide it into two or more new plants. Then, repot each new plant. If you think you may have excessively damaged the roots while dividing, place the new plants in a clear container which will maintain a high humidity and give the roots time to recover.

Growth in the Garden: While short in stature, ‘ala‘ala wai nui makes a poor groundcover because it grows and spreads too slowly. Rather, in the garden, use ‘ala‘ala wai nui as an accent planting on a large rock or in a container. Select a site with full or partial shade for the most natural growth and form.

Inside, ‘ala‘ala wai nui does well near a bright window. If you don’t have a bright window (or, maybe, no window at all), place your ‘ala‘ala wai nui under artificial sunlight. I successful used a 23 watt daylight (6500 K) compact florescent putting out 1600 lumens to keep an ‘ala‘ala wai nui in my bedroom for several years. This was probably more light than it needed (1000 lumens would likely do), but the plant was happy, so, I never changed to a lesser bulb. I would mist my plant once or twice a week since it’s never going to rain in my bedroom. However, be careful, particularly inside, not to overwater your ‘ala‘ala wai nui since this will promote rotting of the stems and roots. One of the best things about P. tetraphylla is that, unlike some other ‘ala‘ala wai nui such as P. blanda, its basic morphology (i.e., leaf size, internode distance, coloration) doesn’t change much with changes in lighting, watering, or media.

Diseases & Pests: It’s very unlikely you’ll have any pest problems inside your home or workplace. Outside, keep a wary eye for snail or slug damage. Keeping the plant in a container off the ground – or, better yet, in a hanging basket – will make it hard to find by these herbivores. If you decide to plant your ‘ala‘ala wai nui in the ground or on a rock and the snails or slugs go after it, you can install copper barriers around the plant, use traps, or resort to slug and snail bait poisons. Bacterial or fungal rot can be a problem both inside and outside. Avoid this potentially fatal problem by not overwatering, and making certain the media in the pot or the soil where your ‘ala‘ala wai nui is planted drains extremely well.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū