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  • Writer's pictureAmy Christmas

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

"Pua Kelekino", Cat's Claw-Caesalpinia decapetala

-4 Things you may not know about this Kauai plant

Forest & Kim Starr, Starr Environmental

1. What is it? Pua Kelekino is a large, sprawling, tropcial, subtropical evergreen shrub loaded with sharp thorns. It can grow more than 9, is woody and typically forms an impenetrable thicket treacherous to all! There is even a record of a cow becoming entangled in it on Kauai ending up being suspended with all fours pointing skyward, resulting in its death. It is a member of the Pea/Bean family and is generally found in lowlands or on mountain slopes. The leaves are alternately bipinnate with each branch having 4-10 leaves further divided with 8-12 pairs of leaflets darker on top with paler undersides. The Cat’s Claw flowers are hermaphroditic having both male and female parts, yellow, borne at the tips of the branches in clusters of up to 10-40 and can get as big 9" long . The flowers are quite showy but also have thorns along the stems. This plant is a sun lover and adaptable to a variety of soil conditions. It is often seen along the roadsides, pastures, and river gulches. It’s pods are curved, range in size from 2-4" long and are slightly swollen, changing from a light yellow green to a rich brown eventually splitting open, looking just like canoes, to reveal 4-9 round black, brown speckled seeds. Seeds are said to remain viable in the soil for up to 10 years, making this plant extremely hard to control, and with its aggressive sprawling habit quite invasive.

2. Where did it come from? Pua Kelekino is native to tropical and temperate regions from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka, and extends east to China, Korea and Japan. It has been widely cultivated and is now naturalized in both tropical and subtropical areas of Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, and is present in both Florida, California, and Hawaii. It was first planted as an ornamental in the late 1800's by Father Celestino (Kelekino in Hawaiian) in Ka’u, Hawaii, and first collected on Oahu in 1910. The plant was considered a natural barrier to keep unwanted animals out. It was thought to have been spread to other islands with heavy equipment. The seeds are not edible but the bark has been used a source of tannin for dye, or stabilizer in pesticides. The leaves have several noted medical uses including as an astringent, for malaria, as a laxative, and applied to burns. As a member of the bean family it does have the nitrogen-fixing ability as well.

3. When is the best time for collecting?

We collect the pods at both the yellow stage to when they turn brown before they have popped open. Once they have popped open they have usually been on the plant for awhile and have lost their natural sheen and integrity. They are dried and stored in open containers indefinitely.

4. How are the collected plant parts used?

The seeds are often strung as lei but we use the seed pods which are a pale white inside and contrasting brown outside on both our baskets and pouches as a decorative element.

*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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