A Hawaii Artist discovers beauty and more in Island Sourced Materials!
"Kamani" Alexandrian laurel -Calophyllum inophyllum
-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? Kamani is a slow growing member of the Mangosteen family (like another one of my favorites, Autograph Tree). They are seen mostly in coastal areas due to their love of sandy soils. It is considered a tropical medium-sized to large tree growing anywhere from 25-65'. Its bark is thick, rough, and grey and somewhat tolerant of forest fires once mature. Alexandrian laurel is an evergreen and has a broad crown of irregular branches filled with 3-8" long, glossy elliptical leaves with unique, broken, parallel venation opposite on the stem. Its flowers are borne in clusters of 4-15, each with 4 sepals and 4-8 oblong white petals and a multitude of bright yellow stamen. The flowers are quite fragrant and reminiscent of orange blossoms. The flowers are followed by globose fruits anywhere from 3/4"-1-1/2". The fruits are made up of a thin skin, which turns from a smooth green to yellow and then brown and wrinkled, which covers a thin layer of pulp, a shell, a corky inner layer and single white, oily, seed kernel which is inedible. It can produce flowers all year but the flowering is heaviest in late spring/early summer and late fall. The Kamani prefers full sun and temperatures no lower than about 46 degrees F. It can tolerate salt spray, waterlogged soils as well as drought. It is a useful tree for windbreaks and some coastal reforestation. It is often confused with another coastal tree appropriately called “False Kamani”. They are not related at all and can be told apart by the leave, flowers, and fruits. The False Kamani is deciduous, with its bigger leaves turning red and falling off the tree twice per year, a completely different flower and its fruits are more almond shaped with an edible internal kernel (see final picture in this grouping to see differences).
2. Where did it come from? Kamani is native to a very large area of origin from East Africa, through India and Southeast Asia to the Philippines, Taiwan and the Marianas. Southward, it’s found in Melanesia to Australia and throughout much of Polynesia. It is believed to have come to Hawaii with the voyaging canoes more than 1000 years ago. As many of the plants brought to Hawaii originally by the Polynesians, it had much cultural significance. The kernel inside the fruit contained oil burned for lighting and rubbing down canoes, massage or hair oil, burned to repel mosquitos. Its oil also was used medicinally to treat burns and skin diseases. Leaves were processed to aid in eye ailments. The wood was used to create calabashes or bowls to hold poi and more because it imparted no taste to the food. The bowls were also used to store kapa in progress. The wood was also used in boat building and for crafts because of its fine grain. Bark has been used as shingles, and the latex as a poison to kill rodents and stun fish. The wringled skins used in dyes for kapa along with the flowers to scent the cloth. The hollowed out nuts were strung for lei and used to create a traditional whistle or “oeoe” for children. The tree is sacred in several cultures and planted next to temples. The Alexandrian laurel is now seen in southern Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands as well.
3. When is the best time for collecting? I had been told by a local Hawaiian woman years ago to pick the fruits while they are green and peel them like an orange and let them dry. Most often, I pick them once they have fallen to the ground, turned either slightly yellow or when the skin becomes wrinkled. They have to be scraped, sanded and oiled to bring out their beauty.
4. How are the collected plant parts used?
Many people use the fine grained, rich colored wood for crafts, cabinets, and Tiki. We use the Kamani nuts for the head of our Hawaiian Tree Topper angel and put 2 together to create the ipu heke she holds.
*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.