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Versatile and hardy hala a hallmark of isle culture

By Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst


Hala are bold, beautiful landscape trees, great privacy screens and a perfect Hawaiian xeriscape plant — tough and "unthirsty." Hala can "drink" pure salt water and survive, but like us, they prefer fresh water.

Also known as pandanus, hala protect and buffer the coasts, holding dune sands and protecting beaches from erosion. It can withstand storms and even hurricanes, and is being studied as a remedy for the state's shrinking coastlines.

Also called pineapple tree and walking tree, people admire the female tree's pineapplelike fruit, and hala's stilt roots are attractive and medicinal.

Some hala have prized red fruit (hala ula), but most are yellow or orange. Ripe hala fruit fragrantly falls apart into individual "keys" that can be used for lei. The fruit needs skilled, strong hands to cut.

The fruit (puhala) has a sweet, edible tip and abundant fiber. It was a famine food. Other places, notably New Guinea, have huge puhala, and these are a significant source of starchy food. Survivor and military manuals talk about the edible pandanus fruit growing on "desert" islands.

Older keys are a "paintbrush," or you can grow a hala plant from them.

Male trees have a special fragrant flower (hinano) with abundant pollen. The blossom's white bracts are striking. Old stories tell of lost fishermen in canoes adrift at sea finding their way home via the fragrances of hala.

The tree is a canoe plant and native to Hawaii, according to recent fossil evidence. Polynesians also carried hala to Hawaii as part of their precious live cargo. Wet places like Hana, Hanalei and Kahana are famous for their hala forests and groves.

Weavers say the best lau hala (hala leaves) are from young hala growing in salty, windy areas. Wet Wailau Valley on Molokai, where fierce, salty winds blow, is prime lau hala habitat.

A papale (hat) made of lau hala is an heirloom that can last 100 years or more if properly cared for. A yearly dip in the ocean is recommended to keep it supple.

Sails for canoes, for fishing, sailing and cruising between islands or across the vast Pacific Ocean, were traditionally woven from lau hala. Sleeping mats, pillows, even the ceilings of finer hale pili (grass "shacks") were made of lau hala.

Most lau hala are thorny, and crafters like these best, even if they are pokey. There are thornless varieties, and one was planted last Arbor Day at Palama Settlement in Kalihi in honor of Hawaii conservationist Cecilia Blackfield, 95, so the keiki wouldn't get poked as they learn and play in this beloved community center.

Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst is a Hawaiian horticulturist, arborist, food gardener and sustainable landscape designer. E-mail her at

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