The Hawaiian language employs an elegantly logical approach in naming non-native plants. It will use the name of a Hawaiian plant with similar characteristics and add either the word "haole" (foreign origin) or "kahiki" (foreign; abroad).
For example, the Hawaiian name for the common shrub/hedge plant mock orange is alahee haole.
The poetic eloquence of the Hawaiian language is exemplified by the translation of alahee. "Ala" means "fragrant, sweet smelling," and "hee" means "slippery, like an octopus." "Alahee" equates to "slippery fragrance." This alludes to the experience of the scent of alahee blossoms being faint and elusive when immediately near the nose, but when downwind from alahee, the slithering fragrance becomes more robust.
While hiking during its flowering cycle, the perfume of alahee has routinely alerted hikers to start scanning the trail for this queen of fragrance, and flowers that appear like pure snow on its branches.
The attributes of our Hawaiian alahee (Psydrax odorata), also known as ohee and walahee, transcends the conventional mock orange.
Alahee is indigenous to all the major Hawaiian islands except Niihau. Although not originally on Kahoolawe, it’s now one of the species being planted for critical environmental re-vegetation. Alahee also thrives in Micronesia and Southern Polynesia. Its diverse habitat includes dry, wind-swept bottom lands, moist forests and even lava flows.
The plant can range from symmetrical shrubs to trees up to 30 feet tall, though it expands to only 3 to 9 feet in width. Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden has the largest alahee trees that I’ve seen. The surface of the leaves is glossy green. Dainty, white, fragrant flowers emerge in bundles. The roundish fruits are green when immature and ripen to purplish-black in late fall or winter, bearing one or two seeds. In the wild, seeds are often invaded by moth larvae. Damaged seeds, which exhibit exit holes of the moth larvae, are unviable. Healthy seeds have a tough coat and a crescent shape.
Early Hawaiians incorporated the flowers and leaves into lei. A black dye was derived from the leaves.
Alahee’s exemplary attribute was its extremely hard, sturdy wood. Hawaiians chiseled alahee into koi alahee (adzes to cut softer woods like wiliwili and kukui), sticks to keep pot lids open, bait poles, short spears, makau mano (shark hooks) and for the versatile o’o (farming and digging implement).
Although slow growing, alahee is relatively tolerant of drought, wind and salt. Embrace its ability to function as a charming specimen or accent landmark. Its thick foliage and packed leaf structure deliver excellent privacy screening and wind-barrier hedging.
Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. E-mail him at HanaHou@ecologyfund.net.