Living Lace

Far more than forest decoration, ferns are essential to Hawaiian ecosystems and native culture.

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pala‘ā fern
The pala‘ā has a place in legend, too: the goddess Pā‘ūopala‘ā could take the shape of a magic skirt of pala‘ā fronds. Tiny ‘ihi‘ihilauākea ferns appear—like magic—only after drenching rains.

Most ferns belong to the forest understory, contributing to the spongy, living carpet that so effectively captures rainwater and recharges underground aquifers. “Some ferns, such as hāpu‘u and uluhe, are keystone species,” says Kay Lynch, a horticulturist who encourages the use of Hawaiian ferns in restoration efforts. “They are essential to natural forest regeneration.”

Some ferns inhabit the canopy; they grow aloft in the forks of trees. Bird’s nest ferns, or ‘ēkaha, are one such epiphytic species. Perched among branches, their pale-green fronds radiate from a dark, hairy center. Hawaiian weavers would pluck the black midribs from these hard-to-reach ferns, and use them to add contrast and color to their lauhala baskets, mats, and hats. Nineteenth-century historian Nathaniel Emerson wrote that the long, blade-shaped ēkaha fronds were sometimes referred to as “Hoe o Maui,” or “Maui’s Paddle,” and draped as offerings on hula altars.

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