Does hala pepe remind you of Dr. Seuss? Me, too. Those tousled heads seem animated. Ted Geisel never came to Hawai‘i, but I think he would have smiled to see hala pepe.
Plant families are wacky. For example, hala pepe is technically an endemic asparagus. It’s also a sun-lover, 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 familiar with hala (Pandanus tectorius), the famous weaving plant of Polynesia which is also long-leaved but much hardier and found closer to the sea. A bath steeped with hala pepe leaves treated chills, headaches and fevers, and the bark, roots and leaves helped with asthma. Both the foliage and the 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).
Hala pepe is rare in the wild, but hula practitioners commonly grow it; it’s one of five essential plants that decorate the altars dedicated to Laka, the goddess of hula. Hala pepe also is a kinolau (earthly form) of Kapo‘ulakina‘u, sometimes referred to as “the first goddess of sorcery.” An unpredictable diety, she was somewhat tamed in the form of hala pepe.
I have stumbled across hala pepe on sunny hillsides, tossing that wild and shiny green hair in the late gold light of day, performing a solitary hula for any gods who might be watching … or maybe just for me.