By Heidi Bornhorst
For many, many years I have been a Lei Day Volunteer at the Mayor’s Celebration at Kapi`olani park. It is such an amazing event and I’ve learned and seen so much every year. Since 1984 in fact ! Yikes
I was first asked to kokua with plant ID when I was working right across the street at the Honolulu Zoo as Zoo Horticulturist. I was reluctant to leave work, even for a few hours, as some of my landscape crew were on the kolohe side.
Kupuna Beatrice Krauss, our famed Ethnobotanist, was a fellow lei plant identifier and any time with her was a precious learning experience. As she got older, she would ask me to drive her, and again, more time with someone so akamai and kind, a Hawaii woman Scientist, ahead of her time.
I told myself when Aunty Bea is pau I will be pau too. But over the years I have realized what a gift it is to volunteer with this job. We get to see all the contest lei as they are delivered at 7 a.m. So amazing, creative and so much time and energy to grow, select, clean and prep and then craft the lei. Timing is vital for freshness and for flowers, like ilima buds to be open.
One year there was a City-wide strike and we had to move the contest at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, they also roped me into being a judge. Never again! To me , all of them are winners. Identifying the flowers, ferns, nuts and lei fibers is challenging but way easier for me!
This year there were some stunners, plants with mixed silvery patterns, in the Heliotrope family Boraginaceae. We had native Hawaiian Hinahina, the lei flower of Kaho`olawe, an endemic native Hawaiian plant; combined with Kipukai, an indigenous Hawaiian plant, and Beach Heliotrope Tree or Tahinu, which is an import, that looks and acts like a native coastal and xeric tree.
This twisty silvery lei combo was so amazing! After doing our volunteer ID job in the early morning we sometimes get a chance to talk to the lei makers.
I was talking to an inspiring and creative young lei maker, Mary Moriarty Jones. I asked her where she collected all those lovely plants or if she grew them herself. We talked about them all being in the Boraginaceae plant family.
One characteristic to identify this family is that the flowers are arranged in a helicoid cyme. It twists to open like the fiddlehead of a fern, and the flowers bloom one by one along the curving floral stalk.
They also tend to have silvery hairs on their leaves. These reflect light and give the silvery Hinahina color. As a xeric adaptation to thrive in dry salty climates the silvery leaf hairs reflect light and also trap moisture and conserve it for the plant as it respires.
This silvery beauty to our eyes is how the plants have thrived for the millennia in harsh dry salty environments.
To grow them for the long term it’s good to understand where they came from and adapt your garden methods accordingly. They need well drained soil and full sun. They are more difficult to grow in pots than in the ground as they really need to spread their roots far and wide (not deep). They like daily watering to get established and then less and less water as their roots spread and adapt.
As my old boss and mentor Masa Yamauchi would say, “Observe your plants closely and water only as needed”.
This is a skill we can all learn and cultivate. Just as we can learn to grow our own rare and wonderful lei plants.