Alahe‘e (Psydrax odorata) Clues to doing it right

Back in 2001, I established the Nānākuli Valley Cultural & Botanical Preserve. In addition to revealing and protecting ancient Hawaiian archeological features, the Preserve is an 8-acre area where I'm trying to recreate a native Hawaiian dry forest. Critics of my efforts say I should spend my time trying to restore the few native dry forest remnants in the very back of the Valley rather than attempting to convert an alien dry forest into a recreation of the native dry forest that once existed at the Preserve’s location midway up the Valley. Obviously, I disagree, but the criticism did give me pause, “How do I know if I’m succeeding?” Well, one clue to the success of the project has been the appearance of wild keiki (offspring, children) within the Preserve. The first native seedlings to appear were alahe‘e, frequently sprouting beneath old alien kiawe. Non-native birds feeding on the fruits of wild and planted alahe‘e inside and outside the Preserve would perch on the kiawe within the Preserve and drop the seeds. Today, many of these alahe‘e seedlings are small trees. And, it hasn’t been just wild alahe‘e popping up within the Preserve. Wild ‘ilima, ‘a‘ali‘i, ‘ilie‘e, ‘āweoweo, hao, and even an endangered kulu‘ī have sprouted and grown within the Preserve, products of the fruits from native plantings and open, weed-free spaces. I don’t yet have a native Hawaiian dry forest within the Preserve, but it’s reassuring and encouraging to see that the few surrounding wild native plants and the many planted native plants are helping with the recreation. (A Sad Update: The massive 2015 brushfire in Nānākuli Valley destroyed about two-thirds of the native plantings within the Preserve.)

Habitat & Appearance: Alahe‘e is indigenous to Micronesia and the South Pacific from New Hebrides and New Caledonia east to Tuamotus; in Hawai‘i, it is native to all the main islands except Kaho‘olawe and Ni‘ihau. Alahe‘e is often common in dry woodlands and dry to mesic forests. Its small stature (10 to 20 feet), shiny dark green leaves, and white bark make alahe‘e the perfect tree for small yards and gardens. There’s even a dwarf variety from Maui that grows only about three feet tall. Alahe‘e produce hundreds of tiny white flowers that are very fragrant from a distance. Fruits are numerous, about ⅓ inch in diameter, turning from green to blackish-green when ripe.

(Top to Bottom) Alahe‘e flowers and leaves. Unripe (green) fruits with moth damage. 'Wild' seedlings under planted tree.

Alahe‘e in Hawaiian Culture: I have heard different interpretations for the meaning of the name alahe‘e, but the one I prefer is from Heidi Bornhorst (2005). According to Heidi, the ala in alahe‘e is a corruption of ‘ala which means fragrance, while he‘e is the Hawaiian word for octopus. So, does this mean alahe‘e smells like an octopus? No. Rather, the fragrance of alahe‘e flowers is slippery – like an octopus. Long ago, Hawaiians discovered the best way to appreciate the fragrance of alahe‘e flowers was not to pick the flowers and bring them to your nose, but rather to stand downwind and let the scent come to and envelope you.

While kauila and uhiuhi were preferred, Hawaiians often fashioned the hard wood of the more common alahe‘e into tools and weapons. Because alahe‘e tends to grow straight, it was particularly suited for making spears. (What could be better than an alahe‘e spear for he‘e spearfishing!) A black kapa dye was made from alahe‘e leaves (Krauss 1993).

Collecting Seeds: Wild alahe‘e fruit once a year, usually during the fall and winter; cultivated trees may have an extended flowering and fruiting season. Collect the fruits when they are blackish-green and soft. Be wary of holes in the fruit (see photograph). These are caused by the larvae of a moth (Orneodes objurgatella) that feed on alahe‘e seed. If the damage from this seed predator is extreme, consider bagging and repeatedly spraying the small immature fruits with a systemic insecticide. Seedlings often appear under or near a parent tree. These can be successfully transplanted provided they are not too large (2-4 true leaves is best) using Method Three. While fresh seeds germinate best, cleaned alahe‘e seeds remain viable in the refrigerator for at least ten years.

Growing from Seed: Using Method One or Two (preferred), alahe‘e seeds, soaked for three days, take about one month to germinate. Seedlings are frequently attacked by scale insects. Eliminate these pests before they kill the young plants (see Enemies in the Garden). Alahe‘e seedlings grow rather slowly but you can speed this up a bit with a control-release of dilute liquid fertilizer. Use an iron-rich fertilizer if you observe yellowing leaves. It normally takes 3 to 6 months for the young trees to reach 8-12 inches; at this size, they are ready for the garden.

Growing from Cuttings: The definitive study on growing alahe‘e from cuttings was conducted by Dr. Richard Criley (Professor of Horticulture at the University of Hawai‘i, Manoā) and his associates from 1996 to 2009. Criley found it very difficult to root alahe‘e cuttings, with less than 20% of the cuttings rooting after numerous and repeated chemical and physical treatments. His most successful method utilized greenwood cuttings under high humidity (rather than intermittent misting) treated with a mixture of IBA and NAA.

Growth in the Garden: Alahe‘e does best planted in full sun to partial shade. Initially, newly-planted alahe‘e grow quite slowly, even when fertilized and frequently watered. However, after about a year in the ground, your young tree should start growing at the rate of one to two feet per year. Flowers and fruits normally develop after reaching 3-4 feet. Alahe‘e exhibit a wide tolerance for watering, but you’re likely to have less problems if you water no more than once a week.

Diseases & Pests: Scale insects continue to be an occasional problem even with large trees. If these pests don’t disappear on their own, refer to Enemies in the Garden for ways to battle them and the ants that often protect the scale from natural predators. Regularly check the base of your alahe‘e for root mealybugs; a serious infestation can kill the tree. See Enemies in the Garden for ways to eliminate these root pests.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū