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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


For the Love of Loulu 
Written By: Rachel Davies
Photographs By: Josh McCullough

In a weedy corner of a large vacant lot, in a new subdivision in the Kona area, stands a rare and irreplaceable palm tree: a Maiden’s loulu, or Pritchardia maideniana. Less than a hundred years ago, this very palm stood among its fellows in a thick, swaying forest that wrapped from Kawaihae down around South Point to Kilauea volcano. Pollen records in the sediment of nearby ‘Aimakapa fishpond proclaim the palm’s earlier dominance and accord with Captain Cook’s descriptions of palms growing abundantly as grass. Older kupuna in the area tell stories of throwing Maiden’s loulu seeds at each other as kids and of using the forest as a sight line while they were out fishing. But today the palm in this lot is one of approximately fifty remaining wild Maiden’s loulu in existence—and because the tree is endemic to Hawai‘i Island alone, it’s one of approximately fifty wild Maiden’s loulu in existence, period.

The Maiden’s loulu is a species in the genus Pritchardia—loulu in Hawaiian—Hawai‘i’s sole genus of native palm. Put aside any thoughts of the familiar coconut palm; for millions of years the only palms that grew in Hawai‘i were loulu. In fact, the Pritchardia genus was so successful and so widespread across the island chain that through the ages it evolved to comprise two dozen different species—trees that are unique to Hawai‘i and that are now increasingly and in some instances incredibly rare. 

The Maiden’s loulu looks like firework stopped in mid-air: Its crown explodes with thick stalks that support broad, fan-shaped fronds that zigzag up and down accordion-style. These shoot straight out of the top of the tree; under them a fizz of hundreds of yellow flowers emerge from their sheaths, and masses of ripening green and purple fruits hang like oversize bunches of grapes from a Flintstone world. “If Pritchardias were this productive with their seeds, you can imagine how big the forests were,” says Mike De Motta, assistant director of Living Collections and Horticulture at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens on Kaua‘i. “If you leveled the playing field, Pritchardia would still be common everywhere.”

Eons ago one Pritchardia seed, maybe more, won the lottery by making it across the thousands of miles of open ocean that separate the Hawaiian Islands from all other land masses. Here, with plenty of niches to inhabit, Pritchardia radiated—that is, it became more diverse, fanning out genetically over generations until it formed a number of distinct species. Today that number stands at twenty-four, though there may still be new species left to discover. Loulu evolved in very distinct places and conditions on each island, with one species flourishing on one side of a mountain while another thrived in a different environment just over the ridge. Most species, like the Maiden’s loulu, are unique to their area, and only five occur on more than one island, notably the Forbes’ (Pritchardia forbesiana), Smooth (Pritchardia glabrata) and Munro’s loulu (Pritchardia munroi) that West Maui shares with Moloka‘i and/or Lana‘i—though that connection likely dates to the time when those three landmasses were connected as the one big island of Maui Nui.

So what has created the uneven playing field for loulu that Mike De Motta describes today? Rats and pigs, mostly, as well as other ungulates, which eat seeds, trample seedlings, spread disease and destroy native habitat. The first Polynesian settlers arrived a thousand years ago, bringing the rat and a small species of pig; the destructive influence of these animals was compounded by the larger rats that scurried ashore from whaling vessels, the boars brought by Cook and the plethora of non-native species that arrived after Western contact. Another threat is development, says horticulturalist Jill Wagner. “The person that buys this lot may not understand the tree’s importance,” she says of the Maiden’s loulu in Kona. “They are supposed to save the tree, but very often it gets bulldozed before anybody thinks about it too much. They just think it’s some old palm, you know?”

Today few loulu forests remain, and some species are down to only a handful of palms in the wild. Just twelve lofty Shattauer’s loulu (Pritchardia schattaueri) linger on Ho‘omau Ranch, Jimmy Stewart’s former Big Island home, and only three critically endangered Viscous loulu (Pritchardia viscosa) struggle precariously in the wet forest of the Halele‘a Forest Reserve in Kaua‘i. A dense, spectacular stand of gray-tinged Hillebrand’s loulu (Pritchardia hillebrandii) does prosper on top of Huelo Island, a thin tower of lava off the northern coast of Moloka‘i, protected from rats by the thrashing surf that surrounds it. Astonishing vertical colonies of Martius’ loulu (Pritchardia martii), one or two palms wide, grip several hundred feet of the steep windward cliffs of O‘ahu, their unusual waterfall-like growth explained by the likelihood that the seeds that fell from the topmost tree, became lodged in a crevice slightly below, germinated, grew and bore fruit. That fruit in turn fell and lodged in a crevice, the whole process repeating itself sequentially over generations, like the very slow unfurling of a Slinky. The question of how its large seeds, almost as big as liliko‘i (passion fruit), initially arrived at the top of the precipice remains a mystery; some speculate about large, extinct birds with the strength and motivation to carry them. 

Indeed, the seeds of the Hawaiian Pritchardia are much larger than any of the three species of non-Hawaiian Pritchardia found in the South Pacific, less buoyant in the ocean and less able to travel by wing. This curious loss of dispersibility is believed to be the result of the unique, low-competition, predator-free environment in which the trees evolved. Some theorize that sufficient seed dispersal was occurring by pollinators and gravity alone, so the palm redirected its efforts into producing larger, more energy-packed seeds to help its young fight their way through the forest undergrowth and find the sun.

Early Hawaiians often cultivated loulu, carving footholds into the trunks for easy access to the fronds, which were used for thatch, protection from the elements, religious ceremonies and heiau (temple) construction. They peeled and ate the young green fruits, called hawane or wahane, rumored to taste a little like coconut, although Rick Gordon, after whom the Gordon’s loulu (Pritchardia gordonii) is named, has had little luck. “I tried to eat ’em and they were hard as rocks,” he laughs. Marvelous tales describe Hawaiians affixing loulu fronds like wings and hang gliding over the oceans.

Several illustrious botanists have studied loulu over the years, among them the Prussian William Hillebrand, who authored the first formal study of the flora of Hawai‘i and whose land and collection became Honolulu’s Foster Botanical Garden; the eccentric Joseph Rock, who traveled with a set of cutlery and a rubber bathtub while on botanical expeditions in Asia; the feisty Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari; Paul Weissich, director emeritus of Honolulu Botanical Gardens; and, most recently, a man often described as the “father of loulu,” world expert Don Hodel, who recently authored the first comprehensive review of loulu published in over seventy-five years, Loulu: The Hawaiian Palm