Locavores and foragers desiring a Hawaiian alternative to cranberry sauce should keep an eye out for ohelo. Among the few edible plants endemic to old Hawaii, ohelo (Vaccinium reticulatum) is native to the high-elevation mountains of Maui and Hawaii Island. It’s a pioneer species — one of the first plants to colonize new volcanic landscapes and begin the process of forest building. Its mass of fine roots penetrates rocky crevices, serving as a sponge to capture rain.
During summer and fall, bell-shaped ohelo flowers ripen into fat, round berries that range in color from saffron to deep magenta and periwinkle. Clusters of berries dangle alongside Halemauu Trail in Haleakala National Park, tempting hikers. Related to blueberries and cranberries, ohelo are tart when eaten raw. They’re sweeter when cooked into jams, jellies, and pies. But before you reach for a bucketful, consider this: Ohelo is a favorite snack of our endangered Hawaiian goose, the nene. So leave some berries for the birds. Ohelo is also considered sacred to Pele, the volcano goddess. It’s customary to toss a berry in the direction of Kilauea, Pele’s fiery home on the Big Island, before indulging in any yourself.
According to legend, the ohelo bush is an incarnation of Pele’s sister Kaohelo. When the goddess neared death, she asked her son to bury her on his grandmother’s navel: the top of Kilauea. He did so, and Kaohelo’s body transformed into red-veined leaves and slender, greyish-brown branches. What remained of Kaohelo was scattered on the other islands, where ohelo bushes subsequently sprang up.
Ohelo thrives in pristine native Hawaiian shrubland. Enterprising berry pickers can disrupt the delicate habitat. To solve this dilemma, University of Hawaii researchers recently developed an ohelo cultivar, Kilauea, to be grown at home and in nurseries. It’s ideal as a potted ornamental or for commercial berry production. Order your own from North American Plants: (503) 474-1852; www.naplants.com. For a jar of delicious ohelo-berry jam, Kilauea General Store is your best bet: (808) 967-7555.