"Ohai Ali'i", Dwarf Poinciana-Ceasalpinia pulcherrima
-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? The Ohai Ali'i is a flowering plant in the Pea family. This semi-evergreen bush can reach a height of 9-24 feet in Hawaii but is often pruned regularly to keep it blooming all year, with all flowers developing on new growth. This plant can handle aggressive trimming but that, along with the collecting of flowers and pods has to be done with care due to abundant thorns on the branches and branchlets. Ohai Ali’i is very easy to grow if it gets full sun and well-drained soil. It is also drought, wind and salt tolerant. The leaves are bi-pinnate which means each leaf is made up of multiple leaflets (4-8) which are also made up of multiple leaflets (7-11) and look similar to it’s relative the Shower tree and Royal Poinciana. The Dwarf Poinciana leaves resemble feathers because of the arrangements and are quite lovely. The Hawaiian name of Ohai Ali’i references the exquisite beauty of the red and yellow flowers-red and yellow are colors often associated with Hawaiian royalty. The flowers are borne on clusters of multiple stalks also called racemes, with the flowers opening first from the base of the branch on up to the tip. The flowers mimic the Royal Poinciana flowers with their 5 wavy petals but are typically smaller, multicolored red, orange, yellow, and even pink; all with exceptionally long stamen. The flowers are followed by smooth flat 1x4 inch pods which dry to a beautiful dark purply maroon.
2. Where did it come from? Although the plant has been given a Hawaiian nickname, it is not native to Hawaii. The dwarf Poinciana is thought to be originally native to the West Indies, although its extensive prevalence throughout the world, no one is sure of its origin. It was introduced to Hawaii early in 1828 from the Caribbean by botanist Harold St. John where it is the national flower. Besides the plant’s flowers being used in fragrance free lei, leaves, flowers, seeds and bark have been used in several other ways. The seeds when mature are poisonous, but have been eaten while still immature. The The American Indians used the leaves, flowers, seeds, and bark medicinally. The leaves have been used in Central and South America to strengthen the liver, juiced to treat fevers, and both powdered flowers and leaves as insecticides, and mosquito repellents and is thought to enhance wound healing because of its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal properties. In India, the tree is sacred and the wood is charred and used as ink.
3. When is the best time for collecting?
We collect the pods regularly and soon after they turn from green to the rich maroon. Since the bush flowers all year, we collect them as our supply dwindles, never feeling any pressure to gather in large quantities. They are air-dried and store at room temperature in an open container.
4. How are the collected plant parts used?
As previously mentioned, the flowers are used in lei and are truly exceptional. We use the pods on both baskets and pouches as a decorative element. We have learned to use the pods whole because once opened the pods will curl back on themselves and aren’t as decorative.
*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.