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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 19, 2006

Delicious 'ohelo berries rooted in folklore

By Duane Choy

'Ohelo, the storied native Hawaiian plant, is related to blueberries and cranberries.

Photos by Forest and Kim Starr

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In "Growing Hawai'i's Native Plants," author Kerin E. Lilleeng-Rosenberger explains that propagating 'ohelo plants from seeds is very difficult, and that cuttings are more fruitful. Elevation above 2,000 feet is favorable. Use a cutting mix of 2 to 3 parts perlite or fine cinder to 1 part potting mix in shallow flats. Keep cuttings in a cool, moist environment. Transplant in three to six months. After outplanting in a well-drained and moist habitat, fertilize every six months with 8-8-8 NPK or foliar-feed monthly. Slugs and ants will be the major pests. Use ant bait and horticultural oil sprays to control infestations.

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Colorful 'ohelo bushes thrive amid a craggy landscape at Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.

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One of the most haunting, mesmerizing images of Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island is the juxtaposition of the raw, primeval lava landscape with the sprinkling of vibrant 'ohelo berry plants and their globose, ambrosia-hued fruits.

The creamy yellows, dusky oranges and brilliant reds of the 'ohelo berries stand as colored sentinels in an ebony moonscape.

In "Hawaiian Mythology," Martha Beckwith writes of the legend of Kaohelo, who instructs her son Kiha to bury her, when she dies, "on the navel of your grandmother at Kilauea." Out of her flesh springs the creeping 'ohelo, out of her bones the 'ohelo bush; other parts of her body are thrown to Maui, O'ahu, Kaua'i, and become 'ohelo bushes on those islands.

A relative of blueberries and cranberries, the 'ohelo (Vaccinium reticulatum) is one of the few native Hawaiian plants producing palatable fruit. The berries have been reincarnated into 'ono jams, jellies and pies, and the fruit is the primary favored food for our state bird, the nene.

This highly variable pioneer plant is found on cinder cones, ash dunes, lava flows and subalpine to alpine shrublands. The smallish shrubs have stiffly erect aerial roots. The oval leaves are generally pale green with reddish-pink fringes and margins with tiny serrations. The bell-shaped flowers are wide-ranging in color and size. The stored flower nectar provides a food source for Hawaiian honeycreepers such as 'i'iwi and 'amakihi.

The most famous association with 'ohelo berries is defined in proverb 2044 of Mary Kawena Pukui's " 'Olelo No 'Eau," which reads: "Mai hahaki 'oe i ka 'ohelo o punia i ka ua noe." (Do not pluck the 'ohelo berries lest we be surrounded by rain and fog.) It's a warning to not do anything that would result in trouble.

It is kapu to pluck 'ohelo berries on the way to the crater of Kilauea. To do so would cause the rain and fog to come, and one could get lost. It is permissible to pick them at the crater if the first 'ohelo is tossed into the fire of Pele. Then, on the homeward way, one may pick as one pleases.

Early Hawaiians treated abdominal pains with 'ohelo leaf buds, leaves and fruit, combined with maunaloa leaf buds and leaves, pawale leaf buds, leaves and fruit, 'olena root, niu (coconut), and ko kea (white sugar cane). The ingredients were pounded into a mash, strained through 'ahu'awa, and drunk in the morning and evening.

Historically, 'ohelo berries were a symbolic focal point in the evolution of Hawaiian traditional beliefs. In 1824, the high cheifess Kapi'olani, a devout Christian, performed a defiant act against Pele in hopes of demonstrating to her people the foundation of her new faith and to win converts. Ignoring dire warnings, Kapi'olani descended toward the fiery pit of Halema'uma'u and read passages from the Bible and ate 'ohelo berries without Pele's permission.

As for myself, every time I pick 'ohelo berries, I toss the first fruit toward the general direction of Kilauea, and then indulge in this amazing Hawaiian plant.

Duane Choy is a consultant for nonprofit organizations involved primarily with environmental missions, and is a Hawai'i native-plant specialist. Reach him at hanahou@ecologyfund.net.