A Fern by Any Other Name

2010

Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photo by John Giordani

peahi fern
The laua‘e fern at left is indigenous to Australia, ubiquitous now in Hawai‘i. At right is the laua‘e also known as pe‘ahi, underside shown at top, front side below. Pe‘ahi fern courtesy of Olinda Rare Plant Nursery

Somewhat confusingly, two attractive fern species in Hawai‘i share the name laua‘e. One is endemic to these islands, i.e., found only here; the other hails from Western Australia. Both are beloved by lei makers and Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

The Australian species (Phymatosorus scolopendria) has been here so long that many people think it’s native. This lovely, robust fern grows just about anywhere, from new lava fields to dense forests. It can be easily spotted nestled within resort landscaping or fringing popular hiking trails. Its deeply lobed fronds have a light almond perfume that intensifies with age. For this reason, it’s sometimes called the maile-scented fern.

More beautiful and far less common, the native laua‘e (Microsorum spectrum) grows in rain-soaked, low-elevation forest — though you’re more likely to find it in a greenhouse than in the wild. The fern’s wide, triangular fronds are richly patterned by thin, dark veins and resemble snakeskin or stained glass. The Hawaiian laua‘e also exudes a signature scent, one celebrated in old chants and mele (songs). When the goddess Hi‘iaka departs Kalalau Valley on Kaua‘i with her lover Lohi‘au, she sings farewell to the steep cliffs made fragrant by laua‘e ferns: ‘A‘ala ka pali i ka laua‘e e. According to the late, esteemed ethnobotanist Isabella Abbott, Hawaiians of the past regularly perfumed their kapa (barkcloth) bedding with laua‘e and braided the sweet-smelling fronds into lei.

On Maui, the native laua‘e is known by yet another name: pe‘ahi. This title includes many poetic references; it simultaneously signifies the fern, an open hand, and the act of beckoning. The phrase ani pe‘ahi means to wave or fan, and recalls the breeze that carries the fern’s precious scent. Pe‘ahi is also the name of a valley in Hā‘iku — known to big-wave surfers as the site of Jaws, one of the world’s biggest waves. Do any native ferns survive there? If so, they’re worth sniffing out.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here