Nā‘ū in Hawaiian Culture: Nowadays, we usually think of colors in terms of light – for example, the colors of the rainbow or the RGB of a video screen. But not all indigenous peoples thought or spoke of colors the same way. One example is how Hawaiians describe many colors; did you know that there is no direct Hawaiian translation for the English word “blue”? Often a Hawaiian color word is also the word for the origin of that color. Nā‘ū is an example, which, if you look it up in a Hawaiian dictionary, not only is the name of the Hawaiian gardenia (Gardenia brighamii), but is also the word describing the color of the dye Hawaiians extracted from the ripe flesh of its fruits.
In ancient times, Hawaiians also fashioned nā‘ū wood into kua lā’au (kapa anvil). And, of course, the flowers were a favorite for lei. People with a better nose than me tell me that the nā‘ū has a sweeter less citrus fragrance than the more frequently cultivated Tahitian or tiare gardenia.
Collecting Seeds: Nā‘ū fruits and seeds take a long time to mature – six to twelve months. Test to see if the fruit is ripe by squeezing it; if the flesh is soft, it is ripe. After picking the fruit, you should be able to easily break through the segments of the eggshell-like endocarp to expose the bright orange seeds inside. Handwash the seeds, discarding any that float. Nā‘ū seeds can be stored in the refrigerator for at least ten years without much loss in viability.
Growing from Seed: If the seeds are fresh, sow them directly in clean media without pretreatment. If they have been stored for awhile, soak them overnight in a shallow pan of water before sowing. The seeds take 2-6 weeks to germinate. Transfer the seedlings to individual pots when they have 2-4 true leaves. Mites, scale insects, and mealybugs often attack seedlings; any of these can kill if not dealt with. Often these can be removed with a cotton swap moistened with alcohol. For more serious infestations, spray the plants with an appropriate insecticide (see Enemies in the Garden). You can hasten the growth of your young nā‘ū with any standard slow-release of foliar fertilizer. The plants should be ten inches tall in about six months, ready to be transferred into your garden.
Growing from Cuttings: I’ve never had much success growing nā‘ū from cuttings but others have. Most important seems to be the condition of the plant you’re taking the cutting from. The nā‘ū should be healthy and activity growing; avoid any plant with droopy leaves, pests, disease, or other signs of stress. Take terminal cuttings about 8 inches long, remove the lower leaves, and treat with rooting hormone. The people I know who have had success place their cuttings under a mist system and then wait months for roots to develop. Of course, the one big advantage of cuttings over seeds is you will not have to wait years for your nā‘ū to flower. For this reason alone, it’s worth at least one attempt.
Growth in the Garden: Nā‘ū grow at a reasonable rate of about one foot per year. Remember, they are small trees, and, in their early years, are more shrub-like than straight-up trees. As I’ve hinted, you’ll need to be patient waiting for flowers from a nā‘ū grown from seed. Most of my plants did not start flowering until they were at least five years old. And, fruiting usually takes another couple of years. While you can quicken the plant’s growth with fertilizers, do not overwater your nā‘ū. In fact, once it is established in the ground, I recommend you never water your nā‘ū.
Diseases & Pests: The biggest killer of nā‘ū I’ve seen in cultivation is overwatering. The plant’s leaves will be wilted, so the owner waters it. The leaves wilt even more, so the owner waters it again. Pretty soon it’s dead. Remember, this is a dry forest tree. And, it is really well adapted to drought. Therefore, if the leaves are wilted or falling off the tree, chances are, it is not a water problem but more likely a pest or disease attacking the roots. Root mealybugs are the worst. The nā‘ū’s leaves will wilt, yellow or fall off, and by the time you notice the mealybugs just beneath the soil at its base, it’s probably too late. Fortunately, a frequent clue before things get this bad is the presence of ants that farm the mealybugs. Therefore, maintain a vigil for ants on or near the base of your nā‘ū. If you see them, get rid of them with an insecticide right away. Then, treat the plant with a systemic insecticide to kill any unseen mealybugs. Nā‘ū are also attacked by mealybugs (and scale insects) above ground, on the leaves and stems. This attack is usually not as deadly but, just the same, should be dealt with quickly with appropriate insecticides.
Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū