POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 10, 2011
"What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878
This first article of the new year is about a discovery: the virtues of the modest Hawaiian plant that looks and grows like a common weed: the unpretentious uhaloa (Waltheria indica).
Other Hawaiian names are hala uhaloa, alaala pu loa, hialoa and kanakaloa. The genus Waltheria is named after A.F. Walther, a professor in Leipzig, Germany.
Uhaloa is chronicled in the milestone research, "The Flora of the Hawaiian Islands," by William Hillebrand. And an exquisite, colored illustration is in Plate 38 of the superlative "Indigenous Flowers of the Hawaiian Islands," by Isabella Sinclair.
Uhaloa is a short-lived shrub that can rise up to 6 feet or so in height. It grows a weak taproot but vigorous lateral roots and numerous fine roots. All roots are brownish and pliable. A single, staunch stem springs from the ground and commonly branches near the surface.
Early stems and leaves are coated with a velvety gray down. Alternate leaves, with prominent, entrenched veining, are narrowly oval or oblong, with irregular, serrated edges and a rounded to pointed tip. Dainty, fragrant, yellow to orange flowers are clustered in the leaf axils. Fruit capsules are double-valved, each with a solitary, tiny black seed.
Uhaloa flourishes in the tropics and warmer subtropics. In Hawaii it has adapted to habitats up to the 4,000-foot elevation. Uhaloa survives in a diverse range of soils with igneous, sedimentary (including limestone) and metamorphic rocks. It perseveres in drought, salt spray and slightly salty soil. It does not tolerate a shade canopy and is unable to live in dense grasslands.
Uhaloa is planted in ecological restoration efforts on culturally significant sites in Hawaii, like Makauwahi Cave on Kauai and on Kahoolawe.
The "virtues" of uhaloa manifest themselves in traditional Hawaiian medicine. Generally, flower buds were chewed by infants, stems and leaves by older children, and roots by adults, although the whole plant was commonly utilized for adults.
The bark of the taproots was chewed for sore throats. Whole plants and/or roots were boiled and juiced into a restorative, bitter tonic for fatigue or general debility. Uhaloa also served as a component in treating hano (asthma), arthritis, neuralgia and pulmonary complications like bronchial phlegm, mucous and chest congestion.
Isabella Aiona Abbott, in her monumental "La'au Hawai'i, Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants," wrote about uhaloa: "Today, many Hawaiians who use none of the other traditional medicinal plants still turn to this one."
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." The nurturing virtues of uhaloa illustrate its inherent cultural beauty — a simple botanical discovery to start the new year.
Hauoli Makahiki Hou!
Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. Reach him at HanaHou@ecologyfund.net.