Scientific Name: Curcuma longa
Also Known As: Hawaiian turmeric
Polynesian Introduction: All HI except Kahoolawe
Description: An herbaceous plant with dark green leaves up to 4 ft. in length that arise out of dark yellow to orange fleshed rhizomes that most people refer to as roots but are actually underground stems. Emerging from the center of the leaves will be an upright inflorescence that resembles a single large white or sometimes purplish-white ginger flower but is really made up of numerous smaller flowers. This “big flower” is highly fragrant and easily distinguished amongst other members of the ginger family. Like many other ginger plants, ‘olena is also deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves, or “dies back”, for a few months every year. So don’t be disappointed when this happens, you didn’t kill the plant, its just resting and will pop up again later.
Distribution: ‘Olena is a Polynesian Introduced plant. Here in Hawaii and is usually found in mesic valleys in areas that were once inhabited by early Hawaiians. Although not very common today, this plant can sometimes be purchased at various plant sales and Hawaiian functions.
Cultural Uses: This plant is highly valued in Hawaii and many other parts of the Pacific for its many uses. The pounded up rhizomes are strained and the liquid is used to treat ailments like ear infection or respiratory infection as well as to spice up food. The rich yellow color is also used to color food and dye kapa.
In other cultures, this plant is used to color and spice curry dishes.
Landscape Uses and Care: ‘Olena does best in partially shaded or full sun areas in rich moist soil. Few pests are known to bother this plant. Plant it along side other perennial plants because as mentioned above, this plant is deciduous and loses its leaves for 2-3 months. Don’t be discouraged by this, ‘olena is a truly beautiful and prized Hawaiian plant, it deserves to be in more of Hawai’i’s gardens.
Additional Info:The song “Pua ‘Olena” made famous by the talented Lim family, talks about the beautiful flower of the ‘Olena plant.Olena