10 Cent Flower
By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent, UH CTAHR
Puakenikeni or “10 cent flower” is a popular lei flower native to the South Pacific. A common forest tree in the Cook Islands, it can reach over 50 feet tall under ideal conditions. One specimen in Pu`unui on Oahu covered the entire side of a ma and pa store. There are many South Pacific legends connected to this plant, and flowers also used to perfume coconut oil. It makes an excellent garden shrub, imparting its alluring fragrance throughout the yard and into the home.
Puakenikeni is a fast growing plant, and is efficient in taking up nutrients if adequately watered, Light fertilizing with a 10-30-10 or 10-20-20 type fertilizer is recommended, because over-fertilizing will create vegetative growth at the expense of flowers. Prune plants to keep flowers within picking height makes it easier and safer to pick them, and will encourage flowering since flowers are produced on new growth. Constantly picking flowers and seed balls will produce more flowers because once seed balls mature, the plant’s energies will be focused on producing seeds instead of flowers.
Air layering is the preferred method of propagation and can create three to four foot plants in a couple of months. When well rooted and ready to detach from the mother plant, it’s best to tie or brace them in a five gallon pot or larger to allow them to root well. When planting in the yard, plants need at least a 15 by 15-foot space to grow.
Because flowers are easily bruised, they need to be handled delicately when collecting flowers and also sewing lei. Pick flowers early in the morning and place in a smooth or ti leaf-lined container. Water is not used on flowers since it will cause discoloration. Ends of flower tubes, including the green calyx, are cut to space petals for eye appeal. A thin strip of cloth is used to sew puakenikeni lei since a thread will cut through flower tubes.
Flowers are not refrigerated. Completed lei are stored in a cake pan covered with a moistened paper towel or in a sealed plastic bag placed in cold water. Flowers can be stored for a desired color; fresh flowers are whitish while stored flowers will change from yellow to orange. Do not store flowers or lei near ripening fruits and wilting flowers since Ethylene gas contained in these materials will accelerate aging of flowers leading to a shorter lei life.
Puakenikeni prefers full sun with moderate irrigation for optimal flowering, and is adapted to a wide range of climatic conditions. Common diseases include a leaf spot, especially when plants are weakened due to stress such as insufficient water. Fungal root rots and root-knot nematodes can be a problem so using compost when planting them and keeping them healthy and thriving is the key. Mealy bugs and scales can be occasional problems, but the use of horticultural oils such as Safer’s Soap, Volck Oil, or Sunspray Superfine oils to the affected areas can control the. Pollen feeding beetles are sometimes found in flowers but are of no consequence. Puakenikeni can provide families with generations of flower for lei if well cared for and nurtured.