20 June 2024

Preserving Palapalai

Extension and UGC host expert on native ferns

Preserving Palapalai

by Alberto Ricordi and Tina Lau

Palapalai is an indigenous Hawaiian fern – one of the most important plants in hula – and Oʻahu Extension was proud to host a recent talk with Hawaiian fern specialist Kay Lynch.

The UH Horticulture graduate (ʻ98), Master Gardener, and founder of Lāʻau Hawaiʻi, a Hawaiian fern propagation research nursery, spoke at CTAHR’s Urban Garden Center on the importance of ferns in the Hawaiian ecosystem, the importance of including ferns in restoration and landscape work, and the need for fern propagators. 

Her “first principles” for fern growers included:

  1. Ask: Where does this fern naturally grow? (See Hawai‘i’s Ferns and Fern Allies, by Daniel D. Palmer). The answer will suggest its light, soil (or potting mix), and moisture preferences.
  2. Remember: Most Hawaiian ferns are understory plants, and require some amount of shade. Some species can take morning sun.
  3. Remember: Ferns have fibrous root systems hiding just below the soil surface. So they require (1) even moisture, and (2) fast-draining soil or potting mix that can hold moisture but not become soggy.

Participants then engaged Kay in a lively Q’nA discussion, ranging in topics from “What can be done by the general public to support habitat restoration?” to “Why is the selection of native ferns in the retail trade so limited?” to “Is the palapalai that I bought from a nursery really a native species?” 

Master Gardener Lana Brodziak commented on the need to educate legislators about conservation concerns and invasive species threats to native species survival. Kay said an understanding of how the components of a Hawaiian forest work together could lead to more action to restore the fern understory. 

One way that legislators and the public could be motivated to protect forests is by showing them the beauty of native ferns and other plants in gardens and how they are used culturally, such as in lei. Extension outreach programs can fill that gap of understanding with real experiences in the garden and with the use of ferns. As part of the workshop, we also led participants in a hands-on propagation exercise in which participants divided ferns from a previous trial held at UGC.

“From making lei to practicing lāʻau lapaʻau to everyday cooking and well-being, native ferns have historically played an important role,” says Jessica Higashi. “As these native species become lost to their more convenient and hardy non-native cousins, so does the culture. Kay’s work with ferns is helping to preserve not only the plants, but the people. The value in that is immeasurable.”

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