"Ohai 'ula", Royal Poinciana-Delonix regia
-4 Things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? The Ohai ‘ula is well known in the islands as a spectacular ornamental tree. Ohai ‘ula translates to Red Poinciana and this plant delivers a flamboyant display of red flowers, also giving it the name Flame Tree. It is a tropical evergreen, sometimes losing its leaves in drier climates, and belongs to the Legume family. It can get about 30’ tall and has a broad umbrella-like habit making it perfect as a shade tree. Its fernlike leaves are about 1-2’ long and are compound and bipinnate with 1 leaf being divided into 11-18 pairs of leaves further divided into 20-30 pairs of leaflets giving the leaf anywhere from 800-2400 total leaflets and a very feathery fern-like appearance. The trunk is buttressed with its roots tapering down to the ground. The 4” flowers have 4 orange-red petals and a 5th petal which is slightly larger and is spotted with yellow and white. The flowers are borne from the tips of the branches in clusters called coryumbs, meaning all of the lower branches of the flowering stem are longer so all flowers on the stem seem to be on the same plane which creates a very full blooming effect. In Hawaii, flowers can be seen from May to August and are followed by large flat woody seed pods averaging 8-24” long filled with off-white speckled seeds. The seed pods are green until they turn reddish brown as they mature. I actually had someone ask me if the long green pods were bananas, I quickly pointed out a nearby grove of bananas so the difference was immediately evident. Ohai ‘ula will not tolerate temperature below 42 degrees F, but is tolerant of salt, drought, heat, and both lower and moist uplands.
2. Where did it come from? The Royal Poinciana is native to Madagascar growing from sea level to higher elevations of more than 6000 feet. It is believed to have been introduced by Dr. William Hillebrand in about 1855 after an international horticultural article touting its beauty. In North America, it has been planted in Florida, South Texas and in humid parts of Mexico. It is also prevalent in the Caribbean, Central and South America, in Mediterranean parts of Europe, and the Middle East as well as South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and Micronesia. The blossom is the national flower of St. Kitts and Nevis, has been adopted as the official tree of Key West, and as the city flower of the Sepang district in Malaysia. The flame tree is often planted along roads as a shade tree, but it also has been used to prevent soil erosion and improvement with its ability to fix nitrogen, like others in the legume family. The wood isn’t overly strong but has been used in making small cutlery and toys. Branches can be used to burn for fuel. The tree bark produces a type of yellowish gummy substance which can be used as a glue. The leaves and immature seed pods are high in protein, making them a great food for both humans and livestock. Certain extracts have been used in both traditional and folk medicine.
3. When is the best time for collecting?
We collect the pods when they turn a reddish brown to dark brown. We usually end up knocking them from the tree or picking them off the ground close within a few days of them falling to get the best quality pod. They store well in open-air containers indefinitely.
4. How are the collected plant parts used?
The seeds are often strung into lei or used in craft projects. The seed pods, when mature, have been used as rattles and a local Kauai preschool painted them and used them as swords, which I found to be delightfully original. The pod's inside is stunning and add a beautiful dual colored and multi-textural element to both baskets and pouches.
*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.