ʻAʻaliʻi is a native shrub/small tree that ranges in height from as low as 1 foot up to 30 feet tall. The height depends on the elevation, sunlight, and water the ‘a‘ali‘i receives. Alternately arranged leaves are simple and quite shiny. Inconspicuous flowers are male or female (rarely hermaphroditic) given this plant’s dioecious nature. The flowers will be red or green and appear on the leaf axis and branch tips. Fruit is a colorful seed capsule with paper-like wings. Small black seeds are in cells inside the capsule. Seed capsules are magnificently beautiful, persisting for months. They can vary in color from white, green, yellow, cream, pink, orange, brick red, and red-purple hues. The contrast between the leaves and seed capsules is striking.
Habitat & Uses
ʻAʻaliʻi is an extremely versatile plant indigenous to all of the main Hawaiian islands from sea level to over 5000 feet in elevation. They are found anywhere from coastal dunes, to lava fields, dry/mesic/wet forests, and all the way up to subalpine shrublands. This species is also indigenous to tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate regions of the Americas.
Early Hawaiians had many uses for this plant. The hardwood of the ʻaʻaliʻi was used in canoe building, weapons, agricultural tools, and house building. The ʻaʻaliʻi plant produced very hard, durable wood that is heavy and sinks in water. This meant lawaiʻa or fishermen could use the wood as bait sticks to attract fish or to fashion fishing spears for heʻe (octopus). Seeds were boiled to make a red dye. Traditional medicinal uses included relief for various skin conditions like rashes, ringworm, and staph infections. Seed capsules and foliage continue today to be perfect for lei-making and wreath making.
Landscaping & Cultivation
ʻAʻaliʻi is an easy to grow plant. From sea level to high elevation, ʻaʻaliʻi is a hardy plant that grows in a wide variety of conditions. At a higher altitude, ʻaʻaliʻi is more tree-like. Lower down, near the ocean, ʻaʻaliʻi becomes compact and busy. It tolerates salt spray, drought conditions, and heavy wind. It is an excellent plant for a xeriscape garden or dry fire-prone areas. ʻAʻaliʻi enjoys the company of the companion plants like ʻilima, ʻākia, kupukupu, pōhinahina, ʻilieʻe, ʻūlei, kuluʻī, lonomea, and mānele.
To process seeds, break up the seed capsules in a paper bag. Pour the seeds and capsule pieces onto a plate. Blow away the paper substance, and you are left with the seeds. Speed up germination by soaking the seeds in hot water for 24 hours. Seeds should sprout in 2 weeks to 6 months.
The ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi ʻaʻaliʻi can be broken down into ʻaʻa and liʻi. ʻAʻa can mean to brave, challenge, defy and liʻi meaning small or tiny. The name could be referencing the rugged and resilient nature of ʻaʻaliʻi in commonly unforgiving landscapes like the deserts of Kaʻū, cold slopes of Mauna Kea and Loa, and pastures. The scientific name Dodonaea is direct reference to botanist Rembert Dodoens and viscosa means viscous or sticky.
He ‘a‘ali‘i kū makani mai au; ‘a‘ohe makani nāna e kūla‘i. I am a wind-resting ‘a‘ali‘i; no gale can push me over. A boast meaning “I can hold my own even in the face of difficulties.” The ‘a‘ali‘i bush can stand the worst of gales, twisting and bending, but seldom breaking off or falling over.
- Container plant
- Cultural significance
- Erosion control
- Lei flower
- Privacy / screening
- Toxic to humans