Spiraling, aerial fireworks remind me of the flowers of the Malay apple, or as it’s known in Hawaii, the mountain apple (Syzygium malaccense). Its Hawaiian name is ohia ai.
There’s also a rarefied mountain apple with ethereal white flowers and fruits called ohia ai kea or ohia ai keo keo.
Ohia ai was introduced to Hawaii by our early Polynesian settlers. Today, sporadic forest groves of the fruit tree still exist but are probably remnants of former cultivation.
The blossoms of ohia ai are pompom explosions of cerise-magenta, brush-like stamens on the tree that create dazzling ground carpets when fallen. Blossoms can erupt up to three times a year.
In Pacific culture, the tree was historically integrated into home gardens, medicine and spirituality. With its glossy green leaves; alluring, floral beauty; low maintenance; and prolific, invigorating fruit, ohia ai is ideally suited for our island landscapes.
Ohia ai enjoys full sun, but will tolerate light shade, especially when the shade is cast sideways, rather than overhead. It will grow in a range of soils, but free drainage is essential.
Moist valleys and along waterways are common wild environments, while areas with roof or gray-water runoff is favored in urban settings.
Cuttings, air-layering or grafting from trees with exceptionally sweet fruit enhances next-generation plantings. Once established, minimal attention is required. Mulching with organic matter such as grass clippings or other shredded plant foliage sustains soil moisture and delivers nutrients slowly.
The ripe, red fruit is usually eaten raw. In old Hawaii, fruit was partially dried to increase palatability and storage. The skin is extremely thin, and the flesh is white and crisp. Half-ripe fruits are pickled.
Ohia ai also was used in traditional Hawaiian medicine. A warmed infusion of mature bark and sapling leaves created a crucial drink for a new mother by helping to expel the afterbirth and facilitate cleansing. The bark when mashed or chewed was taken for sore throats. Bark liquid, strained by a niu (coconut) leaf sheath, was combined with paakai (salt) and applied to lacerations. Leaves were pulverized and consumed for bronchitis or concocted into a tonic.
Ohia ai wood was considered sacred in ancient Hawaii, and woodcarvers sculpted it into kii (religious images). Trunk logs were constructed into beams and rafters for the hale (house) and into heiau (ancient place of worship) enclosures.
Growing ohia ai in our Hawaiian aina nurtures and perpetuates a living, botanical bond with its rich cultural heritage.
Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. Reach him at HanaHou@ecologyfund.net.