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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 23, 2003

Native 'ohi'a lehua plant a perfect fit for Hawai'i gardens

By Heidi Bornhorst

One of the best plants for Hawai'i gardens is the native Hawaiian 'ohi'a lehua, or Metrosideros polymorpha, which is in the Myrtaceae family. They used to tell us you couldn't grow it, but horticulture and the water hose have proven that to be incorrect.

We can and do grow 'ohi'a lehua nowadays, and very well, in a number of gardens all over the Islands. The key to growing 'ohi'a successfully is water. Remember to water your 'ohi'a every day for the first few years, and forever if you have it growing in a pot. Even though you see 'ohi'a growing in seemingly very harsh and dry areas like fresh lava flows, it needs water to live.

'Ohi'a is very dynamic and comes in myriad colors, shapes and sizes. The flowers are most often red but are also found in yellow, orange, salmon and many colors in between. There is legend of a white-flower 'ohi'a, but usually when you go to check on this rare form, it turns out to be lehua haole, a powder-puff flower from Brazil (it also comes in red, white and pink, and is in the bean family).

Gardeners and lei makers went nuts for the yellow, and now we see lots of yellow 'ohi'a lehua (lehua mamo) in gardens. The liko and mu'o, or prized leaf buds, also can come in many colors, textures, shapes and sizes.Ê'Ohi'a also grows in many forms, from tall rain-forest trees, to diminutive bog plants sporting bright flowers with long stamens (lehua maka noe), to plants that may be just a few inches tall.

All this translates well in the garden. An 'ohi'a can be fitted into any size garden. You can trim it and keep it low so you can carefully pluck flowers and liko for lei. You can let it grow tall and glorious.

I didn't think it would grow well in our new garden, it was so windy. Then I saw that our new neighbors had a lovely, rounded 'ohi'a right by their front door. Mrs. M uses it for lei making. When I brought some seedlings from our old home in low-wind Wahiawa, they became battered and torn up by the high winds at our new valley home. I was so sad for the delicate blossoms, but I kept watering them. Then I noticed new leaves had come out, smaller and tougher to handle the windy trades. Soon they produced buds and started blooming. I have 2-year-old seedlings that are blooming!

Many nurseries and garden shops carry 'ohi'a nowadays. You can also grow them from seeds. Growing plants from seeds is true horticulture. It is like watching your keiki grow up and seeing how they all turn out.

I have a nice yellow with hints of silver and orange. Below it is a shy, growing, heavily blooming orange one from the late Jimmy Pang (aka Mr. 'Ohi'a Lehua). He gave us the orange one as a housewarming gift. I collected and grew seeds from the yellow one. Apparently they crossed with the orange, because the seedlings are red, orange, clear yellow and yellow with orange and silver.

We did the good horticulture thing with them: transplanted them as soon as they were big enough and kept putting them in slightly larger pots. We also fertilized regularly. From one-gallon pots, I transplanted them in the ground in our new windy location when the plants were about 18 inches tall.

I fed the soil with a rich compost-cinder mix recycled from Hawaiian Earth products. I watered every day unless it really poured (over an inch). They are less than three years old, about four feet tall and as wide, and full of blossoms.

Growing plants from seeds is not only fun and intriguing as you wait for the blooming results, but is also the most sustainable way to grow them and still keep the mother plants strong and healthy.

Watch out for monkey pod trees

Our good friend who is a fire captain told us an amusing story about the ubiquitous monkey pod trees around town. We all know that monkey pods are great for gardener job security. The trees are always dropping something throughout the year: from sticky pods (now who tracked that into the office?), to flowers (they are flowering now, and the flowers are so pretty — pink and white powder puffs with a nice fragrance), to leaves. Add all the insects and some bird kukae for good measure.

Monkey pods are often planted to shade parking lots. But do you want the shade enough to be buried in debris?

One person apparently left her car under the trees too long. The vents became plugged with leaves and other matter, and as she drove to town her vents started smoking, forcing her to pull off the freeway and call 911. When the firefighters responded, they smelled this really good wood smoke, reminiscent of kiawe. (Kiawe is in the same family as monkey pod, Fabaceae.)

In trying to douse the smoke they traced it to the vents. They were packed with monkey pod parts, which had ignited. Every time they turned on the vents the delicious smelling smoke would waft out. They cleaned out the vents and sent the woman safely on her way, with just a few hungry firefighters left behind.

Heidi Bornhorst is a sustainable landscape consultant.