Thankful for ‘Ohelo

Our very own cranberry.


This month, many of us will pick up a bag of fresh cranberries to accompany our Thanksgiving Day turkey. But we never think of 'öhelo, our very own native cranberry.

'Öhelo, Vaccinium reticulatum, is endemic to the Islands, and is found particularly in the Volcano area of the Big Island. The shrubby plant likes elevations of 1,000 feet or more, and thrives in beds of volcanic ash, cinders and fairly recent lava flows. Its grayish green, round leaves on multiple, stiff branches reveal clusters of red flowers that evolve into red, orange and yellow berries that can range from sweet to tart.

The 'öhelo berry is a member of the cranberry family. The plant flowers and fruits throughout the year, but is especially prolific from April to September. The small round berry has numerous flat seeds, unlike the single-seed berry of the poisonous 'äkia plant, which is often confused with 'öhelo. 'Öhelo can be eaten raw or cooked, and its dried leaves were often brewed into a tea by ancient Hawaiians.

‘Ohelo berries.Photo: Steven Goldsmith, Austin College

Perhaps because of its habitat near volcanoes, 'öhelo is sacred to Pele, the goddess of fire. According to Hawaiian folklore, Ka'öhelo was the mortal sister of Pele. When Ka'öhelo died, the sacred 'öhelo shrub grew from her resting spot. Before eating the berries, fruiting branches are still thrown into Kïlauea as an offering to Pele.

'Öhelo is a food tradition special to the Big Island. Berry pickers scour the area for berries to make pies, jam and other treats. "This is a good year for 'öhelo," says Eric Inouye, of Hirano Store in Glenwood. Inouye makes and sells 'öhelo berry jam and 'öhelo berry cream cheese pie, the latter being especially popular during the holiday season.

Inouye relies on pickers who forage for berries along Saddle Road, where the berries grow profusely. In Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, where they are abundant along Crater Rim, an honor system is imposed on pickers: one quart per person per month for personal use. 'Öhelo are, after all, a favorite food of the nënë, the Hawaiian goose that thrives in the park. Picking more than your share is a serious offense: berries are confiscated and records of citations are kept; more than one citation can land you in court.

Like Inouye, Adele Tripp of Kïlauea General Store in Volcano buys as much as she can during the peak season, from about May to October. "We buy berries from a cadre of pickers, freeze them and cook them as we need them. We're never short of berries; we buy them by the freezerful." In addition to jam, Kïlauea General Store makes 'öhelo syrup, 'öhelo turnovers and an öhelo cheesecake.

This year, add a Hawai'i twist to your Thanksgiving traditions: 'Öhelo and turkey sounds pretty good.

To order ‘O-helo preserves:

• Hirano Store

• Kïlauea General Store

Also look for ‘öhelo preserves made by a number of Island companies at retail stores
featuring Island products, at holiday craft fairs and at
farmers’ markets.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2017
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