In The Garden
Brilliant ohai lights up leis and landscapes
Ohai (tree variety)
Sesbania tomentosa form arborea
Description: Very cool, to say the least, with unreal-looking flowers. These are small, upright trees 10 to 18 feet tall, with evenly pinnate leaves, which means that they have an even number of leaflets on each compound leaf.
Young leaves also have shiny, golden hairs on the surface, an evolutionary adaptation to help reflect the sun so that they don't dry out. The hairy texture of the leaves is called tomentos.
The plant's flowers are pea-shaped and about 2 inches long. They emerge in clusters of about two to five and are either bright orange or orange with streaks of yellow and red. Once the flowers have been pollinated, narrow seed pods form, filled with small green-dark brown seeds.
Distribution: Ohai are found on all the main islands as well as Nihoa and Necker in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Each island's populations vary significantly in morphology (physical appearance), yet all are treated as the same species.
Generally, they are either low prostrate crawlers or small shrubs no more than 3 feet tall and live near the coast in sunny, dry locations. All are endangered species. This variety, however, is the most significantly different as it is found wild only on Molokai and is about three to five times taller than the rest.
All forms of this species are considered endangered, primarily because their natural habitat has been destroyed either by development, grazing mammals, lack of pollinators or destruction from off-road vehicles.
Cultural uses: The beautiful flowers are used in leis and can be strung in the Maunaloa style.
Landscape use and care: These small trees look great in landscapes and can be planted either as a specimen or in rows. Being such a small tree, its flowers are usually at eye level, which make viewing easy. Plant the tree in full sun and in soil that easily dries out; it is very sensitive to overwatering, which causes the leaves to turn yellow, wilt and fall off. Also, look out for shiny black stink bugs that might be on the plant -- they look like black-and-gold ladybugs, but trust me they are not -- no lady would ever dish out a smell like that. They don't really harm the plant, but you can get rid of them by shooting the plant with water or by spraying it with a mild pesticide.
For a limited time, this type of ohai, as well as a few of the other forms, can be found at Home Depots on Maui and Oahu as well as at Hui Ku Maoli Ola native Hawaiian plant nursery in Kaneohe for about $8.
Rick Barboza co-owns Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian plant nursery, with Matt Schirman. Contact him at 295-7777 or e-mail Rick.CK.Barboza@gmail.com