ʻAhuʻawa is an indigenous clumping sedge found on all of the Hawaiian islands. Leaves range from 16-45 inches long and are green with a silvery-blue sheen and powdery white cast. Leaf margins are coarse and abrasive. Flowers are not showy and range from white to yellow to brown. However, their golden seed heads are attractively umbrella-like. When mature, the plant can get to 2.5 feet high and spreads more than two feet.
Habitat & Uses
You can find ʻahuʻawa along coastal sites, sea cliffs, and stream banks. It’s not uncommon to see them in marshes, loʻi kalo (taro paddies), and along agricultural ditches. This aquatic tolerance allows them to survive in brackish estuarine waters as well amongst non-native mangroves. ʻAhuʻawa is flood-tolerant and its fibrous roots can help control erosion along water banks, yet it flourishes in dry conditions. This sedge tolerates salty water and soils. It is also often used as food, nesting material, and shelter by native waterfowl.
As one of the few native plants cultivated by early Hawaiians, it was prized for its wide variety of uses. ʻAhuʻawa was used to treat ʻea (thrush), ule hilo/waikī (gonorrhea), deep cuts/bruises/boils/cold sores, and runny nose. Prepared fibers from the stems were braided together for hāwele (cords), kōkō puʻupuʻu (carrying nets), deep water fishing line, canoe rigging, and strainers. Leaves, seeds, and fruit can be used in lei. Fibers could also be fashioned into brushes to paint color onto kapa (traditional cloth). The seed heads and stalks can be used in floral arrangements.
A great native alternative to the invasive umbrella sedge and papyrus sedge. These plants perform best in full sun and spaced 2-4 feet apart. It grows well in dry, moist, wet, and in standing water (up to 8 inches) conditions. You can fertilize with small amounts of 8-8-8 and foliar feed at 1/3 to 1/4 of the recommended strength. ʻAhuʻawa is sensitive to over fertilization. Additionally, this plant needs to be cut back and divided to keep them looking their best in a landscaped area. Common ʻahuʻawa pests include ants, scales, mealy bugs, and aphids. Finally, do not plant ʻahuʻawa near high traffic areas as it is a sedge and has sharp leaf edges.
The name ʻahuʻawa can be broken into two words. ʻAhu meaning a cape, cloak, or coat and ʻawa most likely referring to the ceremonial drink derived from the ʻawa plant, Piper methysticum. This reference signifies the cultural importance of ʻahuʻawa and its linkage to ʻawa. Stems of the ʻahuʻawa could be pounded, soaked, and dried to create durable fibers, which were commonly utilized as strainers for ʻawa or niu (coconut) drink and medicine. Therefore, the name ʻahuʻawa highlights this plant’s utility and refers to the imagery of straining ʻawa (imagine squeezing a cheesecloth). The scientific name cyperus means sedge in Greek and javanicus is Latin for belonging to Java.
- Aquatic plant
- Cultural significance
- Cut flower
- Erosion control
- Lei flower
- No dangers