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Extra care for ohelo bears exquisite fruit

  • COURTESY FRANCIS ZEE
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"Oh, hello, ohelo!" said the happy hikers to the ohelo berry plant. Hikers love them because they are so pretty and tasty. They are not very common on Oahu, especially at lower elevations. We saw some on a ridge hike in the Waianae Mountains recently. There was one ripe shiny red fruit that we refrained from picking and took pictures of instead.

Ohelo flowers and berries are food for native forest birds and are part of the multilayered, healthy Hawaiian forest where every niche is filled with interwoven plants, from mosses and ferns to shrubs and trees of all sizes.

Ohelo is a native relative of blueberries. Ohelo, or ohelo kau laau, are known as Vaccinium and are in the heather or Ericaceae family. There are several Hawaiian species: V. calycinum, V. dentatum and V. reticulatum. It is diverse in size, shape, leaf color and texture. The leaves can be tinged with pink and red, and the flowers are bell-shaped and hang down.

Flowers are followed by ono berries. Ohelo fruit come in many colors: bright shiny red, blue, pink, purple, yellow and orange.

Sometimes ohelo are abundant and full of fruit in higher-elevation forests. Upper elevations and cold temperatures make for intensely colorful liko (new leaves).

Ohelo is a plant symbolizing Pele. If you pick the berries to eat, first offer some to Pele. This returns the fruit with its numerous tiny seeds to the forest so they can grow.

Some akamai horticulturists on Hawaii island have been figuring out how to grow them in cultivation. They make a choice potted plant with berries that are ono to eat and use in cooking.

For the past six years, Francis Zee and his capable staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo and their partners at the USDA’s Corvallis repository in Oregon and the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service investigated and developed protocols to grow ohelo from seeds, cuttings and tissue culture. They grow them in pots and in the ground. Older plants make gorgeous bonsai.

Zee and his colleagues selected best varieties for maximum fruit production, fruit color, tolerance to powdery mildew and flavor and established the "Kilauea" variety. They grow this variety as potted plants and market them for special occasions like Mother’s Day, Easter and Chinese New Year, as red is a good-luck color.

Zee cautions that it is not an easy plant to keep; you cannot just bring it home and expect it to stay beautiful without some nurturing. Ohelo needs cold temperatures for beautiful colors; the red young flushes gradually turn maroon in about five days when moved from cool (55 degrees Fahrenheit) to warmer locations (70 degrees F). It does very well in air-conditioned rooms when properly watered.

Wealth for gourmet gardeners would be having ohelo berries in abundance to eat. They are ono right off the bush and are an old-time favorite for ohelo berry jam, jelly and pie.

Basic horticultural research on growing and sustaining Hawaiian plants like ohelo in gardens and farms is an economic benefit for growers, chefs and value-added producers. This kind of high-value, nutritious and beautiful fruiting plant would help Hawaii "grow for it."

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

 

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