Living Lace

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

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Back to the Future

Ke‘oni Baldwin
Ke‘oni Baldwin weaves a lei of ferns while a distiller extracts the oils and essences he uses in his hydrosols and body oils.

Ke‘oni Baldwin is experimenting with a new kind of Hawaiian fern medicine—one that draws on both ancient wisdom and modern practices. His exploration began in childhood, when his grandmother, Kauikeonalani Kaipo, shared some of her knowledge of la‘au lapa‘au (plant medicine). “She taught me that botanicals were sentient beings,” he says, that ferns had the power to unlock human emotions. “She was born in Kaupō, which back then was considered a place of mysticism,” says Baldwin. “She said when the time is hemolele, perfect, this knowledge would make itself known.”

For Baldwin, that perfect time is now. He felt called to learn more about ferns after the death of his grandmother. “Every day off I had, I would go by myself to ‘Īao Valley. Everything Tūtū [Grandmother] told me came flooding back.” At his home apothecary, he began distilling essential oils and hydrosols out of Hawaiian ferns.

hydrosols
To create his hydrosols, Keoni ferments the ferns in a jar for forty days, then buries the jar in a running stream for twenty more.

Ultimately, he launched a company called Pōhala, which means “to recover consciousness.” His first product was a distillation of forty-one different native and introduced ferns. Why so many? “I wanted everyone to get recognized!” The result is a floral-scented oil with a wildly unique signature. He now handcrafts multiple fern oils, hydrosols, tinctures, and teas, which he sells and uses in healing retreats and private consultations.

Like other indigenous practitioners, Baldwin performs chants and rituals before collecting the plants. “I do everything with the Hawaiian moon phases,” he says. “I pick during the waning cycle, which is different than other plant medicine.” Indeed, he deals in esoteric medicine, not cures for the common cold or salves for wounds—unless they’re emotional wounds. Each fern addresses a different emotion, he says. For example, ‘ae, a swordlike fern found in Haleakalā, encourages empathy. The leafy ‘ākōlea elicits wonder and awe. “Palapalai holds codes to discipline,” says Baldwin. “It’s the glue that holds things together, so we remain on our path.”

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