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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, August 30, 2002

Wiliwili variety of erythrina native to Islands

By Heidi Bornhorst
Advertiser Gardens Columnist

Q. What is an erythrina? Is it the same as wiliwili? And when do Hawaiian wiliwili bloom? Would it do well at our school, Ali'iolani Elementary, in Kaimuki?

A. Erythrina is the Latin or scientific name for a large group (the genus) of plants, usually trees, in the bean family, Fabaceae. Our native Hawaiian wiliwili is called Erythrina sandwicensis (after the archaic name of Hawai'i, the Sandwich Islands. There are many, many kinds of erythrina in the world, but only one, our wiliwili, or E. sandwicensis for short, is native to the Hawaiian Islands.

People have brought many other kinds of erythrina to Hawai'i, from all over the tropics. Common names for these are coral tree or tiger's claw. To call these alien erythrina wiliwili causes confusion. The alien erythrina were widely planted, but we hardly ever see our native wiliwili in gardens, and it is disappearing in the wild, largely because of fires and also grazing animals, rats and development of dryland forest areas.

True Hawaiian wiliwili usually bloom in the summer. They drop their leaves to save moisture and better display the pastel-colored blooms to pollinating birds and insects.

Hawaiian wiliwili are rich in nectar and supply a good reward for pollinating birds. The flowers are light to deep orange, chartreuse, pale golden yellow and other pastel colors.

The seeds are bright orange or red and about the size of a kidney bean.ÊThese are prized for seed lei, and we wish more people would grow them and plant them in our public gardens and parks.

The Hawaiian wiliwili would be perfect at your school. The climate is right, and it would help students learn more about native Hawaiian plants. You could also make lei from the seeds and flowers in the future, and the lightweight soft wood is interesting.

. . .

In Bloom

'Olena, wiliwili and ko'o loa 'ula

The other evening, weeding and trimming in my garden in the twilight, I caught a whiff of a faint yet delicious gingery fragrance. I found that it was 'olena, right on time with its blooms, and with a special evening fragrance. Delightful!

The ancient Hawaiians carried this plant, the Curcuma ginger, here in their great sailing canoes. The new leaves emerge from the dormant roots in spring. In mid- to late summer (August this year), the flower stalks of white tinged with green emerge on separate stalks from the leaves.

'Olena roots (the dried ones are the spice turmeric) have medicinal and ceremonial uses and also make a lovely golden yellow dye for fabric or kapa. Foodies love fresh olena for gourmet cooking. Use some of your fresh roots for recipes that call for turmeric — so 'ono!

Our native Hawaiian wiliwili, with its pastel blooms in light yellow, chartreuse and apricot are in bloom in mid- to late August. A great place to see wiliwili right now is at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Garden in the kahua lehua section, where there's a stand of apricot and chartreuse blooms right at camera level; call 233-7323 for directions.

Another native Hawaiian plant, the ko'o loa 'ula, Abutilonmenziesii, also known as the red or pink 'ilima, is in bloom. Ko 'o loa lua is an endangered species.

Heidi Bornhorst is director of Honolulu's botanical gardens. Submit questions to islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com or Island Life, The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Letters submitted to The Advertiser may be published or distributed in print, electronic or other forms.