Scouring the damp, steeply banked hills, my hiking companions are light-footed rock hoppers, deftly navigating the large, slippery streamside stones. I on the other hand stumble about, overly cautious of the perfect cylinders bored deep into the boulders—evidence of once relentless waterfalls—filled with wriggling, stagnant water.
Mostly though, our careful steps are out of a desire to not trample the roots of the plants we seek—the prized and increasingly hard to find Zingiber zerumbet. Commonly known here and abroad by its Hawaiian name, ‘awapuhi—more specifically ‘awapuhi kuahiwi or sometimes, opuhi—this edible, medicinal plant originated in India and was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by early Polynesians.
A perennial, the plant’s stalks die off in the autumn, the rhizomes staying dormant underground, then are renewed again in spring. Thriving in shaded yet warm areas kept damp with running water or consistent rainfall, it can spread easily to form lovely ground cover, the stalks upwards of 1 to 2 feet tall.
The ‘awapuhi kuahiwi has many homeopathic uses—mostly derived from preparing the root—including easing the pain of sprains, stomachaches and toothaches, alleviating indigestion and increasing circulation (much like its close relative, a ginger of the culinary bend, the ‘awapuhi pake or Zingiber officinale). Especially coveted is the clear, gelatinous liquid that can be collected from the mature, bright crimson blooms that emerge fiery and phoenix-like from the forest floor detritus in the mid- to late summer.
This intoxicatingly aromatic goo is a natural softener and shine enhancer; the fragrance alone entices regardless of the cosmetic benefits. It’s no wonder common nicknames for ‘awapuhi are “shampoo flower” or “shampoo ginger,” the liquid even achieving a sudsy quality of sorts when worked through hair or on the skin.
Google ‘awapuhi, and you’ll find as many or more image results of Paul Mitchell salon products as the actual plant itself. The beauty product company long ago picked up on the benefits of the flower’s juice and creates a line of products from shampoo to moisturizing mists. The company claims that all of the ‘awapuhi is grown on a solar-powered farm in Hawaii, using desalinated water they process themselves.
Paul Mitchell is not alone in capitalizing on the benefits of ‘awapuhi . Increasing attention is being given to natural and organic products. So much so that products containing—or at least claiming to contain—‘awapuhi can be found everywhere, from high-end, locally made Ala Lani Awapuhi products to Costco’s Kirkland brands.
But the popularity of ‘awapuhi has taken a toll on the wild population. The vibrant, cone-shaped blossoms—abundant in my youth—are evermore difficult to locate, and seem smaller and less mature.
One problem is the common practice of removing the flowers for home or waterfall-side use. Once the stem has been plucked from the plant, it will no longer produce and can kill the plant altogether. Tempting as it may be to take the flowering stems home (they’ll still produce a little more juice, even when harvested and after having been given a good initial squeezing), doing so results in a barren landscape, devoid of the scarlet pops of the peeping shampoo flower once so common this time of year.
As my ‘awapuhi-seeking companions and I meander in the midmorning, through the thick, northeastern green, over wide, webbed tree roots, we’re cautious to not squeeze the wild ginger blossoms too hard, in an effort to avoid the sickening little pop when the stem breaks loose, demolishing prospects for future use. Along the trail we pass several that have been plucked and abandoned by those before us, the nub at the end looking a little like a dislocated ball and joint bone.
It’s sad to see the dead flower’s color paling to yellowed tans, no longer capable of sharing its natural gift with us and with those to come. As few and far between as they seem, a little ‘awapuhi goes a long way. By the time we reach our waterfall destination, my hair is saturated with the sweet stuff, buoyant and more lively than I’ve seen it in ages. Often my prayer is for better hair, but my new mantra might become that all shampoo-seeking stream-goers will tread softly and enjoy ‘awapuhi sparingly—in a way that can be shared. Maui Time Weekly, Anu Yagi