Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wild Edibles in Hawaii - Mango, Avocado, Blackberry, Nene berry

The 3 Foragers on the slopes of Haleakala, Maui

Plants on Hawaii have many different origins, some indigenous, others alien. Endemic plants are those species that evolved in isolation on the Hawaiian islands and are found nowhere else. Indigenous plants are those that colonized the island before the arrival of humans, such as those that arrive on the winds or over the ocean. Plants introduced by the first travelers to Hawaii, the Polynesians, are regarded as native. Most of these plants have important uses for food, fiber, medicine, and spiritual significance. Alien species are the plants introduced after the late 1700s since contact with European explorers. Some plants were brought purposely, many were accidental weed introductions. Many alien species are escaped cultivated plants and fruit trees, and many are causing damage to the native and less hardy Hawaiian plants.

Mango (Mangifera indica) is a fruit tree native to India and introduced in Hawaii in about 1824. It is mostly grown in gardens and yards for its delicious fruit, but there are trees out in the wet valleys and forests that are likely left over from an old garden, or have grown from a discarded pit. Mango trees are very attractive, tall with a rounded crown of evergreen foliage. The leaves are dark green and oblong, 6"-12" long and pointed. The mangoes grow in clusters and ripen in summer, from June through September, depending on the variety. The flesh is wonderfully sweet but sometimes fibrous, and there is a single, flat seed in the center. We saw many trees full of green fruit, but no ripe mangoes. Some people may have an allergic reaction to mangoes, they contain the same chemical that causes poison ivy sensitivity, urushiol.

There are over 200 varieties of avocados (Persea americana) grown on Hawaii. Native to Mexico and Central America, avocadoes grow very well in orchards, but also wild in low elevation wet forests. It was likely introduced in the early 1800s. The tree has large, evergreen, alternate pointed oval leaves, and is easily recognized when bearing fruit. The avocados can be pear-shaped or round, mostly dark green, with smooth or pebbly skin. The ripe fruit is bright green and not sweet, more of a buttery, nutty, and smooth flesh. There is one large, oval seed in the middle of the fruit. We saw many trees in the forests of Kauai, but the best place to find some fantastic avocadoes is at the Sunshine Markets around the island of Kauai. There were several different varieties to sample and buy for $1.00-$3.00 each, incredibly cheap for local, truly ripe fruit.

Blackberries (Rubus species) on Hawaii are non-native alien pests, and in several places they are considered highly invasive and need to be controlled. We came across some enormous, ripe berries in Poli Poli Springs on Maui. They tasted great, but the blackberry canes were very large, and very spiny. On Kauai, people were hiking at Kokee State Park and covered in scratches from the blackberry canes. Hikers are encouraged to report the blackberry infestations to the park employees for removal and control. Blackberries are spread by birds and by underground growth of the roots. While they make a great trailside edible, they do not belong in Hawaii and we can see how they could easily take over whole areas. Blackberries like to grow in disturbed areas like trails and open fields.

Ohelo 'ai flowers
Ohelo 'ai berry
A true endemic edible plant to Hawaii is ohelo 'ai, or the Nene berry (Vaccinium reticulatum). Ohelo 'ai is a shrub with alternate, oval, leathery and often toothed leaves that grow in the lava fields at higher, alpine elevations. It bears many tubular, waxy flowers in clusters that vary in color from pink to red or even yellow-green. The berries have a 5-petaled crown at the bottom, and ripen to red or dark purple. There are many small seeds inside the berry, and the taste is a bit tart. Flowers and fruit is often present at the same time, while most of the fruit ripens in late autumn. Ohelo 'ai is an important food source for the Hawaiian goose, the Nene, and we saw a pair of the geese out foraging for berries on Haleakala in the late morning. This berry might look similar to wild blueberries, as it is botanically related.

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