Many malahini and some kamaaina think the coconut palm is a native palm. Yes, it has been grown in the Hawaiian Islands for more than 1,000 years, but the real natives are not the genus Cocos but the genus Pritchardia.
The local name for this group of fan palms is loulu, and according to modern taxonomists, there are about 30 species found in Hawaii and the South Pacific. At one time, there could have been many more, but by the time the first westerners arrived in the late 1700s, rats and pigs brought by the first Polynesians had greatly reduced the vast forests of Pritchardia. Today, most species are reduced to small groups in isolated areas.
When it comes to Hawaiian plants, palms are among those that are severely threatened. Several books are available at our local book stores to give you ideas and types of native plants, including palms for your garden location. The International Palm Society is also very active in the protection, culture and education about palms.Visit palms.org for more information.
The IPS Hawaii Chapter has many ongoing projects to promote the use and protection of palms. Tim Brian, president of the local chapter, is a good contact if you are interested in membership and local chapter meetings. Contact him at 333-5626.
A book on the genus Pritchardia by Don Hodel, “Loulu, the Hawaiian Palm,” is available.
The Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook is a great place to see a variety of native palms, plants and Polynesian introductions.
Our state tree, the kukui, originated in what is now Indonesia. Our state tree should probably be the loulu palm because it is definitely not only indigenous but is endemic. The Hawaiian loulu evolved here and is found growing naturally only in Hawaii. It is a shame many of these species have declined in number to the point they are almost extinct.
The Kona loulu, or Pritchardia maideniana, previously known as P. affinis, is a tree from Puna, Kona and Ka‘u. These palms were at one time found from Kalapana to Punaluu and the Kailua area of Kona, a distance of more than 150 miles. Today, only isolated specimens can be found. Few seedlings appear around the parent plants. Without man’s help, they, too, will disappear.
Otto and Isa Degner published an article in the June 1971 Phytologia (Vol. 21) that speculates as to the cause of this decline. They wrote that on Hawaii Island at Kaliilii, near Wahaula, within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a few impressions of prostrate trunks can be seen on a prehistoric, though not very old, pahoehoe lava flow. Beyond the southwestern boundary of the park, between the main road and the ocean, at Kawaa, lies an expanse of prehistoric, smooth pahoehoe. Here, the pahoehoe had gently flowed through a palm grove, the wet trunks burning slowly through the base so that the trees fell on the cooling lava. The writers are convinced the loulu reached the islands eons ago and may have more or less encircled many stretches of the islands with extensive groves, particularly before the Polynesians brought the pig and perhaps, as a stowaway, the seed-eating Polynesian rat. The fossil impressions at Kaliilii and Kawaa are irrefutable proof of this fact.
By 1969, the Pritchardia affinis was possibly within 20 years of extinction along the Ka‘u coastline unless measures were taken to ensure its survival. Fortunately, C. Brewer and Co. Ltd., the major landholder in Ka‘u, had just embarked on a resort development in the region and was developing a large nursery to supply materials for landscaping the project. The company was interested in locating and propagating plants adaptable to this dry, windy region. It was felt that the native plants of the region should have first consideration since they had proved their worth under Ka‘u’s climatic conditions.
In 1970, seeds of this palm were collected at the Beamer home adjacent to Punaluu Black Sand Beach. The seeds were planted in flats and grown to landscape size. Today, several groves are beautifying the area. Trees from this batch of seed also found their way to the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, Kona Outdoor Circle garden and many other sites around the island. Seeds distributed by the Hawaii Island Palm Society to California, southern France and Morocco have been found to do well in protected locations.
Pritchardia maideniana is rarely found in the wild and only occasionally in the landscape. The most common Pritchardia are two introduced species from Fiji. These are Pritchardia thurstonii and Pritchardia pacifica. Thurston’s loulu is noted for flower clusters up to 6 feet long.
Pritchardia pacifica has very large leaves that were used in the old days as sunshades and umbrellas. These species are adapted to dry coastal locations. Pritchardia maideniana prefers sunny, drier locations but has been grown at elevations as high as 3,000 feet. Another rare one is named after George Schattauer, Kona kamaaina. A few trees are found above Kaohe, Honomalino and Hookena. I am growing Schattauer’s loulu in Kaloko Mauka at 3,000 feet elevation, where it does well.
Several trees are also growing and seeding at Greenwell garden. It is much more attractive than P. maideniana. Seed of Pritchardia beccariana from Kulani Prison Road near Volcano is being distributed on the Big Island. The latter is a spectacular fan palm with leaves almost 6 feet across. It is a rain forest species but will tolerate full sun given enough moisture.
It’s important to the survival of many of these beautiful species to use them in our gardens. Unfortunately, most nurseries do not carry the native loulu, and some seeds are difficult to obtain. Check with Greenwell garden for several species.
To propagate loulu, plant fresh seeds in flats or shallow boxes filled with soil. Cover the seeds with one-eighth to one inch of soil, depending on the size of the seed.
Keep the soil in the flats moist but not wet. Damping off fungi are likely to ravage the tiny seedlings if the soil is kept soggy. Seed flats may be covered with clear plastic to keep in warmth and moisture. This will speed up germination. Protect seeds and seedlings from rats. Germination time of palm seed varies widely with the species and requires patience. They may not peek out of the ground for several months following planting.
Pot the plants in 1-gallon containers after they have sprouted. A suggested potting mixture is equal parts of soil or cinder and rotted compost. Fertilize monthly with a complete fertilizer. When the seedlings are one to two feet high, transplant them to 5-gallon containers or plant them in the ground. Loulu palms are well-suited for planting in groups, as specimens or for lining driveways. Young palms require coddling until established. Then they thrive with very little attention, other than sun, fertilizer and water.
Remember, if folks begin to show interest in native trees such as the loulu, our nurseries can then afford to carry them as part of their regular stock. These palms and many other native plants should be used in the Hawaiian landscape. It is up to us to make it happen.