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Hawaiian poppy's barbs contrast with frail blossoms

By Duane Choy

LAST UPDATED: 1:48 a.m. HST, Nov 14, 2011

During my graduate school days in California, I was captivated by the seasonal fields of that state's flower, the California poppy, that sprinkled the landscape with sparkling, orange splashes.

In Hawaii it's rare for native plants to be either poisonous or thorny. Botanical evolution in Hawaii did not require plants to adapt defense mechanisms of being unpalatable or texturally obnoxious to herbivore predation. Pua kala (Argemone glauca), our Hawaiian poppy, surprisingly is both toxic and prickly.

Pua kala, which translates from Hawaiian to "thorny flower," is also known as kala, naule and pokalakala. William Anderson, the botanist and surgeon for British explorer Capt. James Cook, gathered a specimen from Waimea, Kauai, in 1778.

Up to 5 feet in height, this Hawaiian perennial herb grows in dry, coastal plains and exposed shrub lands or pastures from sea level to about 1,700 feet.

Its botanical features conjure the appearance of a plant armored to survive a post-apocalyptic world. The wavy, crinkled and barbed leaves alternate upon a spiny stem in a clasping mode. The flower is angelic, crisp, snow-white. Fragile blossoms emerge from the branch tips, featuring orange-crested stamens enclosing a maroon-tipped pistil.

SEEDS are encapsulated in a spiked pod and germinate even under drought or after ravaging fire. Pua kala is shielded with a surface of whitish wax that enables water conservation and projects a bluish-gray tint to the plant. The milky latex is yellowish and contains berberine and protopine — plant alkaloids — but no morphine or codeine alkaloids.

In Hawaiian mythology, pua kala was a kinolau ("body" of a supernatural entity) of Kane-ko-kala (Kane-with-spines).

Early Hawaiians incorporated the lu (tiny, round seeds of pua kala) and the sticky sap of the stalk as an analgesic and narcotic for toothache, neuralgia and ulcers. Warts were lathered with pua kala juice extract, then dried in the sun. This regimen was repeated until the warts detached.

Although pua kala has "bite" with its "bark," the ethereal blossom unveils the beauty within the beast.

Duane Choy is a Native Hawaiian plant specialist. Reach him at

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