In The Garden
Fragrant ‘olena used as dye, spice
Description: An herbaceous plant with dark green leaves up to 4 feet in length that rise out of dark yellow- to orange-fleshed rhizomes that most people refer to as roots but are actually underground stems. Emerging from the center of the leaves is an inflorescence (cluster of flowers on a stem) that resembles a single large white or sometimes purplish-white ginger flower, but is really made up of many smaller flowers. This "big flower" is highly fragrant and easily distinguished among other members of the ginger family.
Hui Ku Maoli Ola
'Olena is best planted next to perrenials since it loses its foliage for two to three months a year.
Like many ginger plants, 'olena is also deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves, or "dies back" a few months every year. So don't be alarmed when this happens - you didn't kill the plant, it's just resting and will pop up again later.
Distribution: 'Olena is a Polynesian-introduced plant usually found in mesic valleys in areas once inhabited by early Hawaiians. Although not very common, this plant can sometimes be purchased at plant sales and Hawaiian functions. It is now available at Home Depot for about $7.
Cultural uses: This plant is highly valued in Hawaii and many other parts of the Pacific for its many uses. The pounded rhizomes are strained and the liquid used to treat ailments such as ear or respiratory infection, as well as to spice foods.
The plant's rich, yellow color also makes it good for dyeing food and kapa. In other cultures, particularly in India, this plant is used to color and spice curry dishes.
Landscape uses and care: 'Olena does best in partially shaded or full-sun areas in rich, moist soil. Few pests bother it. Plant it alongside other perennials because, as mentioned, this plant is deciduous and loses its leaves for two to three months. Don't be discouraged by this - 'olena is a truly beautiful and prized Hawaiian plant, and deserves to be in more of Hawaii's gardens.
Also: The song "Pua 'Olena," made famous by the talented Lim Family, talks about the beautiful flower of the 'olena plant.
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