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  • Writer's pictureAmy Christmas

A Hawaii Artist discovers beauty and more in Island Sourced Materials!

"Ohai". Siris Tree-Albizia lebbeck

-4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant

Forest & Kim Starr, Starr Environmental

1. What is it? The Siris tree has many names with one being the Hawaiian “Ohai” or white Poinciana. It is commonly called Siris, but also is know as woman’s tongue due to its seeds rattling inside the pods with the wind, mimicking women’s chatter (or so they say). It is a deciduous, perennial tree belonging to the Legume or bean family. The tree can range in size from 10-50 feet in a confined area to more than 100 in an open area. The leaves are bipinnate with 1 to 4 leaves further divided into 3-11 pairs of bright green, small ½ “to 2-1/2" oblong leaflets. The flowers are globular clusters of 15-40 white fragrant flowers. The seed pods are 4"-12" long and hold from 5-15 seeds. The pods are fairly flat and as they mature they change from a bright green to yellow then to light tan. The tree is hardly noticed until it blooms and then again when the pods change from the green color to their mature state. The Ohai loses its leaves about when the pods develop. Siris grows mostly in lowlands, prefers average temperatures of the tropics and sub-tropics, likes some rain but is tolerant of drought, poor soil, and salt spray. It is fast growing, shallow rooted, making it prone to blowing over in strong winds, and its adaptability to a wide range of conditions makes it very invasive.

2. Where did it come from? Siris is native to tropical Africa, Asia, Northern Australia, and according to one source New Guinea also. It has been naturalized in many places and used as a shade tree because of its dense canopy, in coffee, tea, Cacao plantations keeping soils moist and controlling erosion. Like most of the bean family, it is also a nitrogen fixer, and its falling leaves and pods can be tilled into ground acting like an organic fertilizer. Ohai leaves, twigs, flowers and immature pods are eaten by rabbits, goats, camel, and cattle. The wood can be used as firewood but also provides a quality hardwood for cabinet making and as a veneer. Various parts are used medicinally as an astringent, to tree cough, eyes, flu, and used to treat tumors and inflammation. It has also been known be a remedy for nervous disorders. It is believed to have come to Hawaii in the early 1900's.

3. When is the best time for collecting?

We prefer to pick the pods when they are green. They are less brittle and offer a yellow-light green color unique from any other plant pod. We typically collect them twice per year. They are air-dried and stored in open air containers

4. How are the collected plant parts used?

We use the Ohai pods in both the green and yellow stages on baskets and pouches. They are light weight and easy to incorporate offering a unique color and texture.

*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.



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