Grow Aloha: ʻAʻaliʻi

Grow Aloha Podcast: ʻAʻaliʻi

By Kapiʻolani Ching, Communications Coordinator

Featuring Ānuenue Pūnua, Dr. Dustin Wolkis, and Ezikio Quintana

“Pua ʻAʻaliʻi” performed by Mololani (Ānuenue Pūnua, Uʻilani Bobbitt, Kapalaiʻula DeSilva)

Beloved for its beautiful fruit capsules, ʻaʻaliʻi is often referred to as ʻaʻaliʻi kū makani (wind-resisting ʻaʻaliʻi) in reference to its ability to withstand strong winds. The ʻōlelo noʻeau (proverbial saying) “He ʻaʻaliʻi kū makani mai au; ʻaʻohe makani nāna e kulaʻi,” translates to, “I am a wind-resisting ʻaʻaliʻi; no gust can push me over,” and is used to describe a resilient person who can hold their own even in the face of difficulties. Indigenous to Hawaiʻi, ʻaʻaliʻi can be found in a wide range of habitats from dry coastal lowlands to wet forests

Hear three individuals share their heartfelt connections to ʻaʻaliʻi and how this plant has left an enduring mark on their lives.

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From left: Male ʻaʻaliʻi flower, female ʻaʻaliʻi flower, and the fruit of the ʻaʻaliʻi which develops from the female flower.

Originally from Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu, Ānuenue Pūnua’s connection to ʻaʻaliʻi stems from an experience she had working on Hawaiʻi Island after graduating from high school. A few years later when tasked with writing a song for a college class, she found herself drawing inspiration from her time on Hawaiʻi Island and her experience getting to know ʻaʻaliʻi. This led her to write “Pua ʻAʻaliʻi,” a composition that would later earn her a Nā Hōkū Hanohano award. Fast forward to today, she shares a bit more about the inspiration behind the song.

“I was first introduced to ʻaʻaliʻi right after high school when I was given the opportunity to go to Hawaiʻi Island and help to build a hālau waʻa. I am also a crew member of the voyaging canoe Makaliʻi, and at that time they were building a hālau waʻa down at Kaʻūpūlehu which is now where the Four Seasons Resort is. So my kuleana was to go up mauka every morning, up to Mauna Kea along Saddle Road, and we had an area where we would harvest pili grass.”

“As we were gathering pili grass, I remember my best friend Mahina kept telling me “look at the ʻaʻaliʻi!” and I thought, “what’s ʻaʻaliʻi?” At that time I didn’t know what ʻaʻaliʻi was. But every day, we worked eight hours or sometimes longer, and during that time I got to know ʻaʻaliʻi, and it became a really strong symbol in my life.”

“So I came home, and then it’s just like when you learn how to go holoholo for heʻe or something—once you see ʻaʻaliʻi, you’ll start to see ʻaʻaliʻi everywhere. So when I came home, I was attending UH Mānoa and I started dancing hula with Kumu Manu Boyd. His hālau is Hālau o ke ʻAʻaliʻi Kū Makani—so again, ʻaʻaliʻi was everywhere.”

“And then in my haku mele class, my kumu was Puakea Nogelmeier, and for our final assignment we had to write a song, put a melody to it and perform it. In thinking of what to write, all I could pull back on was my experience being up on the Big Island, and ʻaʻaliʻi as being a very profound plant. And of course since that time, I had learned how important ʻaʻaliʻi was and how it’s really like the kanaka. It’s who we are. The roots are deeply rooted, so rooted that it can withstand extreme environments.”

“So I wrote a song named Pua ʻAʻaliʻi, and at the time I wrote it with a lot of different things in mind, but primarily because I look back on that time—it was the first time I moved away from home and lived away from my family and all the things I was really comfortable and maʻa to. And being able to be around people I didn’t know and working day to day, and how ʻaʻaliʻi was a really big focal point, it makes me think about how flexible we have to be as people. But as long as you’re rooted and your foundation is strong, you can do anything. You’ll grow and you’ll blossom and you’ll be very abundant, as long as your foundation is strong.”

Dr. Dustin Wolkis is the scientific curator of seed conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG). Prior to joining NTBG, he worked at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona. Upon moving to Hawaiʻi, he was surprised to encounter a familiar friend.

“Before I took this post I was working at the Desert Botanical Garden, and I was tasked with coordinating that garden’s efforts in the national native seed collecting program called Seeds of Success. This is where we go out to public lands and make bulk collections of workhorse restoration species. And so, I was in the field a lot. And one of the plants that always seemed to be around was Dodonaea Viscosa, also known as ʻaʻaliʻi in Hawaiʻi. And so when I relocated to take this post, I had an instant connection with ʻaʻaliʻi.”

“However interestingly, I had probably walked past the plant a hundred or so times before someone pointed out to me that it was ʻaʻaliʻi, Dodonaea Viscosa. I didn’t initially recognize it because the form can look very different. In fact there are a couple different forms in Hawaiʻi. In the Sonoran Desert, it’s more of a shrub-like plant. Here in Hawaiʻi, especially in the wetter areas, it can be a tall tree. But one of the cool things is that in Hawaiʻi it occurs from the lowlands up into the wet montane forests. So it’s kind of like having a friend anywhere you go.”

When it comes to the seeds of the ʻaʻaliʻi, Dr. Wolkis shared a few interesting facts that further speaks to its resilience and enduring presence.

“From a seed perspective, one of the really neat and nice things is the seeds are quite large. And they’re quite easy to clean from the fruits. In Arizona, one of the common names is four wing hop bush. And I suppose it’s because the the fruits are somewhat papery, and there’s four wings. Inside each wing is a large (by large, I mean it’s three millimeters or so long), hard dark seed. Also, these seeds have a type of dormancy called physical dormancy. So this is characterized by a water impermeable seed coat. And so at the time of natural dispersal, the seeds are mature, the embryo is fully developed, but the seed coat cannot drink in water. It also means that we can conserve the seeds for long periods of time using conventional protocols. That’s good news in terms of the conservation of the seeds of this species.”

Ezikio Quintana, a Kupu AmeriCorps service member at Limahuli Garden and Preserve shared his thoughts on ʻaʻaliʻi and its variability across Hawaiʻi’s various ecosystems.

“One of the things that comes to mind for me is just how variable it is. When we think of ʻōhiʻa, we think about it as having all these different forms. ʻAʻaliʻi is the same way. Depending on where you are, what island, even from valley to valley or yard to yard, ʻaʻaliʻi can look so different. It’s so adaptable to its environment and that’s why it succeeds in so many different environments. You can see it growing in wet to mesic forests on Kauaʻi and then it’s also one of the first plants to show up in the lava fields on Hawaiʻi Island, and it can also be found in those vast expanses of old lava on Maui. It’s always there.”

While ʻaʻaliʻi is renowned for its resilience, it’s not merely resilient for the sake of it. Its resilience serves a greater purpose.

“What most people think of when they think of ʻaʻaliʻi is to be as resilient as one, to withstand the strong winds and to be a steadfast as an ʻaʻaliʻi. It’s a common saying throughout Hawaiʻi and resilience is a big part of it. Resilience but also grace, because it’s not just about being all gnarly and wind whipped and looking all nuts—ʻaʻaliʻi are still so beautiful in those harsh environments. And they also aren’t so resilient for their own sake alone. They’re one of the foundational plants that provide habitat for other plants and insects. They collect water in these dry places. So it’s not just being resilient for resilience sake but being resilient to build something that comes after you.”

Interviews were edited for clarity and length. Artwork by Carly Lake.

When we grow Hawaiian native plants and heritage crops, we grow aloha for ʻāina. Adopt one of these cherished plants every third Saturday at our free Grow Aloha plant giveaways at NTBG and partner locations!

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