Does the halapepe remind you of Dr. Seuss? Me, too. Those tousled heads seem animate. Ted Geisel never came to Hawai‘i, but had he, I think he would have smiled to see halapepe. Plant families are wacky, so let me just tell you that halapepe is technically an endemic asparagus. And it’s a sun-lover, found standing glossy and proud between 2,000 and 4,000 feet upslope of the restless sea. Its name means “baby hala” for reasons obvious to those who are familiar with the famous weaving plant of Polynesia, also long-leaved but much hardier and found closer to the sea. Chills, headaches and fever were treated in steamy baths with halapepe leaves; the bark, root and leaves helped to treat asthma. Leaves and the startling pendant flowers, yellow-green to yellow-orange, found their way into lei, while the soft white-to-pink wood was worked into ki‘i (carved deities).
Halapepe is rare in the wild, but hula practitioners grow it. It’s one of the five essential plants that decorate the altars dedicated to Laka, the goddess of hula, that sacred dance that depicts the power and mystery of life. And halapepe is a kinolau (earthly form) of Kapo‘ulakina‘u, sometimes referred to as “the first goddess of sorcery,” an unpredictable goddess, although in the form of halapepe, she is tamed somewhat. I have stumbled across halapepe on sunny hillsides, tossing that wild and shiny green hair in the late gold light of day, performing a solitary hula for any gods . . . or maybe just for me.