Kadomatsu: A pine and bamboo welcome for =new year

New Year’s is only a week away. In Hawaii, the two plants that symbolize the holiday are pine and bamboo, set in an arrangement called a kadomatsu. The tradition came here with the Japanese immigrants brought to work on the pineapple and sugar cane plantations.

The literal translation for kadomatsu is “gate pine” and the arrangements are normally placed in pairs in front of the home on either side of the door or gate. Designs vary, but the basics are three bamboo poles of different lengths with the tops cut at an angle and bound together with natural fiber ropes with pine branches added to the arrangement. The different heights of bamboo represent heaven, humanity and earth. Pine symbolizes longevity and endurance, while bamboo symbolizes growth, prosperity and strength. Ume or plum sprigs are sometimes added to symbolize steadfastness. The belief was that the kadomatsu brought good luck by welcoming ancestral spirits by serving as temporary housing for them. The spirits bestowed the homeowner with a bountiful harvest.

Kadomatsu is displayed during the second half of December and into January. In Japan, preparations for the New Year begin Dec. 13. Many people in Hawaii wait until after Christmas to set up their display. The date you take down the display also varies — either Jan. 7 or 15. Tradition agrees that the kadomatsu be burned to release the sprits within.

Hundreds of bamboo species grow from the tropics to temperate zones worldwide, with dozens to select from in Hawaii. Varieties range in size from small grass-like plants to towering giants with stems 8 inches in diameter and more than 70 feet tall. Most of the bamboo in Hawaii grow best with ample moisture and a warm climate. In making a traditional kadomatsu arrangement, it is better to use a thicker walled variety, which is easier to cut cleanly.

Pines are characterized by having resinous wood and cones with seeds on flattened scales. All true pines belong to the family pinaceae which contains about 210 species worldwide. In Japan, the black pine, Pinus thunbergii, red pine, Pinus densiflora, and white pine, Pinus parviflora, are commonly used for kadomatsu arrangements. Pines are not native to Hawaii, however more than a dozen species have become established here as part of reforestation projects at elevations ranging from 2,000 to 13,000 feet. They can also be found as landscape trees and as bonsai plants in many gardens. There are good specimens of pine trees around the civic center in Waimea. You may also find large black pines growing in yards. Some of the more common p=ines in Hawaii are the Monterey, Mexico, loblolly, Benguet, slash, Japanese black, Japanese red, short leaf, and western yellow.

Most pines in Hawaii do better at elevations above 2,000 feet, probably because of the slightly cooler temperatures. They generally do well in moist, well-drained soil with good aeration and have a neutral to slightly acidic pH. When planting seedlings, it is best to protect them from the elements, especially from getting too much sunlight. Once established in the landscape, pines need little care to grow provided they receive adequate moisture

As a side note, the ironwood, Casuarina equisetifolia, is commonly used as a substitute for pine, even in many kadomatsu arrangements. However, the ironwood is not a pine at all, nor is it closely related to the pine. Ironwood might look like a pine with its thin needle-like leaves — actually jointed grooved branchlets — and cone-like seed pods, but is actually a true flowering plant. True flowering plants have seeds enclosed within one or more layers of plant tissues. Look closely at the ironwood seed pod and you will see that two structures of the pod open to reveal the seed within. Pines on the other hand are classified as gymnospermae and are characterized by having naked seeds borne on the surface of cone scales.

Wishing all of you a happy and prosperous new year and may all of your gardens flourish as well.

For more information on this and other gardening topics, visit the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources website at ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/Info.aspx or visit any of the Cooperative Extension Service offices islandwide. I can be reached at russelln@hawaii.edu.

Russell Nagata is the Hawaii County administrator of the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.