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ʻAʻaliʻi (Dodonaea viscosa)

Hawaiian Name(s): ‘a‘ali‘i, ‘a‘ali‘i kū makani, ‘a‘ali‘i kū ma kua, kumakani

Scientific Name: Dodonaea viscosa

Family: Sapindaceae

Status: indigenous


Description:

'A'ali'i (Dodonaea viscosa) is either a shrub or small tree up to 30 feet tall that is native to Hawai'i, as well as other parts of the tropics and subtropics, including Florida and Arizona. 

In Hawai'i, it is found in the wild from coastal areas up into the mountains. It usually grows in open sites such as ridges or lava fields. This plant grows in dry areas, moist areas and wet areas. Not a whole lot of native plants have such wide distribution. It is native to all the main Hawaiian islands except Kaho'olawe, but it is reasonable to assume it was once found there as well and it is being planted there in the restoration efforts to bring back the native flora of that abused island.

Protect & Preserve Hawai'i is working to restore degraded ecosystems and rely on the ‘a‘ali‘i to jumpstart forest regeneration. 

‘Ōlelo Noeau: [M. K. PUKUI]: He ‘a‘ali‘i ku makani mai au; ‘a‘ohe makani nana e kula‘i.
Translation: I am a wind-resting ‘a‘ali‘i; no gale can push me over.
Meaning: A boast saying, "I can hold my own, even in the face of difficulties." The ‘a‘ali‘i can stand the worst of gales, twisting and bending but seldom breaking off or falling over.

Traditional Uses:

  • It has hard, durable heartwood. Corner posts of houses sometimes included ‘a‘ali‘i wood, as did fenceposts.

  • Weapons such as spears were also fashioned from the wood.

  • A sticky resin covers the leaves, which turned the plant into a torch when it was ignited.

  • On the culinary front, ‘a‘ali‘i’s fruit has been used instead of hops when alcoholic beverages such as beer were prepared.

  • The attractive, colorful seedpods continue to be used in lei po'o, which are worn around the head.

  • Seedpods were also used to make a red dye, which was used to decorate kapa (tapa) barkcloth.​

Medicinal Uses:

The National Tropical Botanical garden reports that ‘a‘ali‘i leaves were chewed to relieve the pain of toothaches. Because these leaves contain very astringent tannic acid, toothache sufferers spat out the juice without swallowing it.

In some cultures where Dodonaea viscosa grows, it is taken internally to reduce fevers. In all parts of Hawai‘i, ‘a‘ali‘i was ground to a paste and then employed to relieve rashes.

 

'A'ali'i plants are either male, female or some combination of both. The flowers are male or female and appear on the same or separate plants. Male flowers need to be observed closely to be appreciated. They look something like ribbed cups and are usually some color of red or pink. The female flowers look like little upside down lollipops until they are fertilized, when they start to balloon up and form the fruit. 'A'ali'i are better known for their fruit than they are for their flowers. The fruit are air-filled capsules with two to four wings. The capsules come in a range of colors from cream or straw-colored to pinkish to dark red.

 
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Female flowers

Male flowers

 

Propagation & Cultivation

The fruit of 'a'ali'i is a winged capsule containing several small, round, black seeds. This species is particularly variable in capsule size, number of wings (generally 2 to 4), and the degree of inflation (roundness). Capsule color ranges from straw colored to brown, pink to mahogany red to reddish-purple. Each capsule contains a few round dark seeds; each seed is about 1/8 inch in diameter.

To remove the seeds from the dry papery capsules, air dry them at room temperature in a bowl or paper bag. Carefully rub the fruits through a strainer with the appropriate size mesh, or rub them between your hands. If using a strainer, the seeds should fall through leaving the debris in the strainer.

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Hot water treatment will usually improve germination rate and speed. We suggest using water that with a temperature right before boiling of around 120 - 150 degrees F. Cover the seeds with about three times as much water and soak them for 24 hours. Discard any seeds that float.
Plant the seeds in a sterile, moistened mixture such as 3 parts perlite and 1 part potting mix. Plant the seeds 1/8 inch deep. Water them in and keep the soil moist, then water every other day. Keep in a shady and protected area safe from heavy rain and weather conditions.

 

Germination

Germination generally takes 2 to 4 weeks

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Wait until four true leaves develop before transplanting to 2 - 4 inch pots.

Transplant to larger pots when they are twice as large as their pots. Slowly transition into more sun from shade, morning sun to afternoon sun to harden off before transplanting as well as cutting back on watering.

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