By Heidi Bornhorst
Q: Is pua kenikeni native to Hawaii? Or did the ancient Polynesians bring it? I LOVE that pua and the leis we can make. Please share more about this favorite fragrant garden and lei plant.
A: Puakenikeni is not native to Hawaii, nor did the ancient voyagers bring it on their great sea travelling canoes. It only got to Hawaii in the late 1800s and became widely popular in about 1920. It was given the name pua keni keni (10 cents flower) because the flowers were so highly prized that they sold for 10 cents each!
The scientific name is Fagraea berteriana and it is in the Loganiaceae plant family.
The first pua tree in Hawaii was planted in Maunawili and it was propagated and shared on the windward side of Oahu where it grows well, given some good horticultural TLC. It became known as the flower of Kane`ohe in the early days.
My Mom Marilyn Bornhorst and I got to visit what is probably the original tree. It was quite a sight to see! My calabash Uncle, Ben Lum could be called ‘Mr. Puakenikeni’.
He has nurtured this tree and made hundreds of not thousands of air layered trees to share over the years. He gives them away and also sells them at Ko`olau farmers. We find that sometimes people appreciate a plant more and will plant it in the ground and malama (cherish and care for) if they paid for it.
Free plants can languish in pots, whereas if you paid hard earned money for it, you are more likely to plant it and water it daily to get it established.
Pua kenikeni do best in the ground, in fertile soil with regular water. They do better in red dirt or rich brown forest type soils than in sandy or beach kind of soils.
The tree is mentioned in the classic book NA LEI by Marie McDonald. McDonald writes that it was brought to Hawaii from other south pacific islandsby Jarrett P. Wilder.
You can grow it from seeds but that will take a while. Some people can grow it from cuttings but the most popular way to propagate pua kenikeni is from air layers. The sooner you plant it in the ground, the quicker it will bloom. Regular water and compost, from leaves or tree chips will build healthy fertile soil for your tree. Cheap chemical fertilizer, especially lawn fertilizer with heavy nitrogen (the first number on the fertilizer bag) will not promote blooming. You can even burn or kill pua kenikeni with harsh chemical fertilizers, so use the old-fashioned Hawaiian soil building techniques of re-using your garden “opala” or green wastes, mulch and compost, to build up your soil and save water too.
Keep your tree pruned low and wide spreading so you can pick the flowers. You can use a bonsai technique and bend the branches low while they are young and flexible. I’ve seen some Akamai lei flower growers use pretty Pohaku (rocks) on a rope, to weigh the branches down and train them to be in pickable range.
Pua kenikeni flowers first open and bloom creamy white and turn to a subtle light orange on the second day. You can pick mature buds or flowers and keep them fresh and firm in a vase of water. Or sprinkle water into the plastic bag with the flowers
The flowers are somewhat fragile and lei makers need to handle them carefully. Uncle Ben told me a neat technique that one of his friends uses. He takes a big leaf, makes some pukas and inserts the pua into the pukas. He then carries the flower adorned leaf and gives away the fragrant blossoms to folks who admire them. Isn’t that an awesome way to share some aloha?
Lei makers usually clip off the bottom green part of the flower and then string the lei. The lei is pretty with fresh white flowers or second day light orange. To refresh a lei puakenikeni, put it in a clear plastic bag, blow some air in the bag and seal it. Float this in a bowl of cool water. NEVER put puakenikeni in the refrigerator the lei will not last. It will turn black and then to mush (we had an inexperienced florist that did put them in the fridge and Auwe! The next morning those lovely carefully plucked and strung blossoms were all black and yucky.
To promote flowers on your tree, clip or pinch off the developing fruit which look like green balls and then turn orange when ripe. If you cut open a ripe one you will see hundreds of small black seeds inside. It kind of looks like the insides of a cut papaya – orange flesh and black seeds.
I sometimes clip off bunches of the green or orange fruit with their stems and use them for a long-lasting flower arrangement. I love them for Fall arrangements, and they are pretty at Christmas time too.
Developing fruit takes energy from the tree. If you clip off the fruits that tree energy will go into producing more flowers. Akamai lei flower growers pinch off every green fruit and then have an abundance of the fragrant pretty flowers.