Loulu palms are the only palm native to Hawaii. People think coconuts (niu) are native, but they had to be hand-carried here by early Polynesian voyagers. In fact, coconuts were very hard to get to Hawaii in a growable condition, but that’s another moolelo (story).
Loulu are called Pritchardia by scientists, and we have about 16 species of this lovely fan palm here in Hawaii. A few related species are found in Fiji and Tahiti.
Loulu were once so common in Hawaii that there were forests of them. One place to see loulu palms like in the old days is Huelo islet off the north cliffs of Molokai. It is a steep, clifflike island with the deepest-blue ocean surf surging around it. No goats, pigs or rats are there, and the whole island is covered with loulu.
Loulu are grown in home and botanic gardens. Some still survive in the wild, but they face many threats, especially rats, which eat the seeds, flowers and keiki loulu palms. Pigs, goats and people like to eat them, too. People are the worst threat to loulu and other native plants, as we cut down trees, bulldoze, set fires, import alien weeds and build things where forests once grew.
People can be the solution, as well.
Chris Dacus, landscape architect for the state Department of Transportation, has organized a group to grow and perpetuate more loulu palms. We are starting with the most common one still found on Oahu, the loulu hiwa, or Pritchardia martii. We plan to grow lots of them in groves to get a pure seed stock for future plantings and sharing.
Imagine groves of loulu along our streets and highways. They would be so Hawaiian and are also inexpensive to maintain compared with coconuts and other large exotic palms.
In our gardens, we can protect them from rats and other pests and nurture each seed to maturity. They are fairly easy to grow from seeds. The germinating seeds need to be protected from rats.
At Hoomaluhia and Foster Botanic gardens, there are “seed cages” with sturdy heavy-duty mesh to keep rats from grinding the seeds and seedlings.
Rat traps are good, as well. Every rat you catch is one less out there eating natives and the fruit in our gardens. Fewer rats would also mean less leptospirosis in our freshwater streams.
HOW TO GROW LOULU
Get ripe fruit of loulu from cultivated plants. Clean off the outer husk. Plant the seed, horizontally, half covered in a 6-inch pot of potting mix. You can plant up to six seeds per 6-inch pot. Water daily. Transplant to individual pots when the keiki have two or three leaves.
Another method is to plant the cleaned seeds in a Ziploc bag half filled with moist sphagnum moss. Hang this in a well-lit area. You will see the seedlings germinating in one to three months.
I grew mine inside until the rat population was under control.
Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst is a Hawaiian horticulturist, arborist, food gardener and sustainable landscape designer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.