Story by Shannon Wianecki
Few plants growing in the Hawaiian rainforest delight kids as much as ‘awapuhi, or shampoo ginger. While hiking in ‘Īao Valley or alongside a stream in Hāna, sharp-eyed youngsters look for the bright red flowers sprouting at the base of slender, leafy stalks. The flowers, which resemble ruby-colored pinecones, are filled with slimy liquid—perfect for squeezing over your sibling’s head. The sudsy goo is a fine substitute for shampoo in the wild. It softens and adds shine to hair, and has a sweet fragrance.
‘Awapuhi is not native to Hawai‘i; it originated in Southeast Asia, where traditional healers have used the hardy ginger to treat various ailments for thousands of years. Modern scientific studies confirm that it has anti-inflammatory properties. When Polynesian voyagers set sail across the Pacific, they packed ‘awapuhi in their canoes. It is one of the twenty-seven species known as “canoe plants”—plants the first Hawaiians carried with them and relied on when colonizing these Islands.
Hawai‘i residents continue to use shampoo ginger in numerous applications—not merely as a ready-made soap. Practitioners of lā‘au lapa‘au (herbal medicine) apply the leaves of the ‘awapuhi plant as compresses to cuts and bruises, and mash the roots into a pulp to treat headaches, toothaches, and sprains. Enterprising cooks layer ‘awapuhi stalks and leaves in the imu (underground oven) to flavor pork and fish. Kapa (barkcloth) makers perfume their malo (loincloths) pā‘ū (skirts) and moe kapa (bed sheets) with dried rhizomes sliced or ground into a powder.
As useful as ‘awapuhi is, it’s a fleeting pleasure. The deciduous plant flourishes during the spring and summer months, then dies back and goes dormant during winter. A Hawaiian proverb references this trait: ‘Awapuhi lau pala wale. Ginger leaves yellow quickly. It’s said of anything that passes too soon. So kids, the time is now. Gather ye soapsuds while ye may!