In the Garden
Rick Barboza

Exotic-looking plant
had use as Hawaiian

Description: Exotic-looking shrubs to medium-size trees up to 15 feet tall with large elliptical leaves easily distinguished by a pronounced rib around the leaf edges. Foliage is light green, with varying hues of cream and yellow or sometimes maroon, pink and purple veins. The flowers are small and emerge on a hanging inflorescence that also varies in color from yellow to dark red and is usually 1 to 2 feet long. The foliage and flowering characteristics are distinctive, making this an attention-getter in any yard.

Charpentiera ovata

Distribution: The genus Charpentiera comprises six species, five endemic to Hawaii, including this one. This species is widespread in the mesic and wet forests of Oahu (Koolau Mountains), Molokai, Maui and Hawaii. These plants are usually found in the forest understory, but large specimens can reach the canopy, exposing them to full sun.

Cultural use: The dried wood of this plant is very light and flammable and was used as fireworks. Hawaiians would ignite the wood and throw them off cliffs, watching the trail of fire as it fell.

Landscape use and care: Papala is ideal for anyone who needs a tall shade tree. It does well in full sun and can handle short periods of drought, although a regular watering schedule is ideal. I've planted them under koa trees and under house eves to good effect. They also do well in pots inside the home.

As far as pests are concerned, the only one to watch out for is scales, especially the big brown dome-shaped type. These are usually associated with ants that bring them to the plants, so be sure to treat for ants as well as scales to prevent an endless battle.

Additional information: Do not confuse this plant with another native called Papala kepau (Pisonia sp.). They are not related. Papala is used for fireworks and entertainment; papala kepau is used to catch birds.

Rick Barboza co-owns Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian plant nursery, with Matt Schirman. Contact him at 259-6580 or e-mail rickckbarboza@aol.com. "In the Garden" is a Friday feature.

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