In The Garden
‘Ohelo berries make tasty jams and pies
Description: Small shrubs 3 to 4 feet tall with stiff aerial roots and rounded leaves, usually with many tiny serrations on the margins. Leaves are generally a pale green with reddish-pink margins, sometimes pubescent (with tiny hairs). Flowers are tubular and generally dark red but sometimes light pink, green or even yellow. Once in a while, you can find a single flower with all those colors, fading from dark red to green tips.
The berries for which this plant is famous are about a half-inch in diameter and are generally bright red, but their color can vary as well, with some plants having yellow, purplish-red, orange, pink or even blackish fruit. This plant is highly variable, so characteristics such as amount of pubescence, leaf serration, fruit color, flower color, size and shape can be quite different, especially between island populations.
Distribution: V. reticulatum is found predominantly in the higher subalpine and alpine shrub land of Maui and the Big Island, from about 2,000 to well above 10,000 feet in elevation, but also on new lava flows and cinder cones. Occasionally, plants are found on Kauai, Oahu and Molokai.
Cultural Uses: 'Ohelo is one of the few plants native to Hawaii to produce palatable fruit; in fact, another name for this plant is 'ohelo 'ai, which means edible 'ohelo. The berries were once eaten regularly, but are more often used these days to make tangy jams, jellies and onolicious pies.
Fruiting branches are also used as offerings to Pele, thrown into Kilauea Crater. This might not seem like much, but the branches are usually carried great distances, as 'ohelo is not found near the crater. It is also a common practice when eating 'ohelo, to offer the first berry to Pele, by throwing it in the general direction of Kilauea, regardless of where you are standing.
The flower nectar serves as food for Hawaiian honeycreepers such as the 'amakihi and 'i'iwi, while the fruit is one of the favorite foods of the nene. The flowers and fruit are also used in lei making.
Landscape use and care: Unless you live in Volcano on the Big Island or in Upcountry Maui, the chances of your having an 'ohelo plant are slim. We were able to grow it at our nursery, but the plants are sensitive to water and light. We did get them to flower and bear fruit, but if we'd turned our berries into jelly, it would only have filled one of those little packets that you normally get when ordering toast at restaurants.
co-owns Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian plant nursery. Contact him at 295-7777 or e-mail Rick.firstname.lastname@example.org