Pili is an indigenous clump-forming bunchgrass with a pleasing odor. Blades are about 12 inches tall, green in color with a hint of blue. Insignificant flowers mature into dark seeds, one end a long awn, the other a sharp spike. Together they form a tangle of seeds set atop the grassy blades.
Pili means to ‘cling to’ in Olelo Hawaii, a reference to the cork-screw-shaped seeds’ movement. After contact with soil, fur, feathers, clothing, or hair, the seeds naturally tunnel in. Likely, the seeds arrived to Hawai’i adhering to a bird’s feathers or muddy feet. Historically, It was used for thatching and mattress stuffing (the pleasant odor was a bonus) and material for kapa dye. Today, pili grass is a crucial component for the replanting of Kahoolawe.
Pre-human contact, pili grew in open areas on the leeward sides. Human disturbances have changed that landscape forever. Pili is fire-tolerant but not fire-adapted, like other invasive grasses. When fires sweep across the landscape, it dies to be replaced by noxious weeds like fountain grass.
Pili makes a magnificent accent or border planting. Not a fussy plant, it flourishes in cultivation in both wet and dry areas, and it’s suitable for xeriscaping gardens. Trim every year or so, especially after going to seed, to encourage new growth and a more robust appearance. The upright pili grass re-seeds itself. The prostrate form needs replanting periodically. Propagation is from seeds or root decision.
- Container plant
- Cultural significance
- Erosion control
- No dangers