-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? Earpod is an attractive flowering deciduous tree. It belongs to the Legume family. It is a fairly large tree sometimes reaching heights of more than100' and has an equally large hemispheric crown which makes it an ideal tree for shade. It has a smooth grey bark and its 6"-16" leaves are twice divided with 4-15 pairs of leaflets which are further split into smaller pairs of 40-70 paired light weight green leaflets. The flowers resemble puffballs which are actually about 50 individual flowers. The Earpod flowers are very fragrant and are followed by flat disc-like seed pods resembling ears and due to their size, are often also called Monkey or Elephant Ears. The pods turn from a green to a shiny purplish brown and have visible bumps where the seeds are lodged beneath. The seed pods are relatively soft and sticky inside, but when broken open, reveal beautiful tri-colored seeds. The size of the pods can vary greatly from a few inches wide to more than 6" and therefore so do the number of seeds contained in each pod. They fall from the tree when mature, causing quite a mess. Another interesting fact, I discovered, is that the pods actually don’t appear on the tree until 9-10 months after the blooms. I had always noticed the tree blooming shortly after we completed all of our month-long collecting and wondered why we only got to gather the pods once when so many others from the bean family provided fresh pods twice a year. The Earpod is a relatively quick grower with very deep roots. It is tolerant of most soils and some drought as well as flooding. It doesn’t handle salt well, so is generally planted more inland. When it is fully mature, it is also fire resistant.
2. Where did it come from? The Earpod is native to tropical America from central Mexico south to northern Brazil and Venezuela. It is quite abundant in Costa Rica where it is the national tree. Besides its use as a shade tree, it also is a nitrogen fixer like other legumes, and has many other uses. The seeds are edible and highly nutritious being able to be cooked like beans, prepared in a soup, toasted and/or ground into flour, roasted and used as a coffee substitute, and in some areas popped like popcorn. Leaves, pods, and seeds are also used to feed goats, sheep, cattle and horses. Its wood is used for firewood and charcoal along with construction to handcrafts. The wood is highly resistant to fungi and ground termites. The flesh of the pods contains saponins which makes it a great detergent to clean clothes. The sap of the tree has been used as an adhesive and has medicinal applications to treat the flu, and bronchitis to name a few. The Earpod was brought to Hawaii by Dr. William Hillebrand in the 1850's, and grown in his garden. He saw its potential for a future in the shipbuilding industry. Now, it’s a popular choice for veneer and paneling. According to a another source, Earpod was planted in forest reserves across Hawaii with as many as 7900 planted on Kauai, many in the Lihue-Koloa Forest reserve from 1926-1935.
3. When is the best time for collecting?
We begin collecting the fallen pods in April, and depending on the rate of maturity, along with help from the wind, finish in May. They have to be fully dried before storing in an airtight container. We often end up with pods which are too mashed to use, but have several friends proficient in seed lei making, who are happy to extract the beautiful seeds.
4. How are the collected plant parts used?
We use the seed pods as both a primary and additional decorative element on both baskets and pouches. We also use one of the seeds on our Hawaiian Tree Topper Angel as a decorative touch. It is one of my favorite elements and Ron loves to refer to them as the Monkey ears.
*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.