Common name: Hawaiian Tree Fern
Scientific name: Cibotium spp.
Where to Find: Mid-elevation wet forest
There are 3 endemic species of hāpuʻu, and many hybrids can be found in the wet forests of Hawaiʻi. The Hawaiian name, “Hāpuʻu” translates to “abounding” or “plentiful.” It also shares its name with a species of grouper, since endemic groupers and tree ferns are both large, long lived species that have many cultural uses.
This fern had a variety of important uses in ancient Hawaiʻi. The “pulu” (fine hairs) covering the young fern fronds could be used to dress wounds and prepare bodies for burial. The root of the hāpuʻu was considered a famine food. An ʻōlelo noʻeau (Hawaiian proverb) says this about the hāpuʻu: “He hāpuʻu ka ʻai he ai make,” which translates to “If the hāpuʻu is the food, it is the food of death.” It takes 3 days to cook hāpuʻu, as well as time to forage for it and prepare the imu (oven). If something went wrong during the process and the timeline was extended, it was not uncommon for people to die of starvation prior to the food being prepared.
This was once an incredibly common species, but overharvesting combined with a slow growth time (3.5 in per year for young ferns) and competition from invasives (Australian and Asian tree ferns grow much faster and outcompete natives) have made them much more rare. Even though they can be grown on the coastline, they prefer areas at higher elevations with more shade and rainfall.