Friday, November 9, 2007

Kamaaina (Ardisia elliptica)

I was pretty sure, starting this one, that I wanted a Hawaiian "people" term for the article title. For one thing, Ardisia elliptica is an invasive species in Hawaii, which is the main thing I know about the plant, and for another, my husband lived there for a while, off and on, so I have a handy reference source for these kinds of words, so why not. So I ask him what would be the word for someone who visits Hawaii as a tourist and then decides not to go back to the mainland, and he says kamaaina. Okay, I say, and then go to the internet to look for an official-type definition, so I can start the article with it like I did for Schlub, and I get definitions that tell me that kamaaina (sometimes kamahina) can only be used for people who were born there, or at the very least people who have lived there for a really long time. Which doesn't work at all, because the whole point of calling this an invasive species is to underline the fact that it hasn't been there for a long time, and wasn't native.

So back to the drawing board. Further searching of the net turns up the words haole and malihini, which are also both wrong. Haole has the right kind of meaning (foreigner), and even sort of has the connotation of invasiveness, but is actually used to mean mainly white people, and is generally racist and hostile, and apparently almost sounds wrong if it's not preceded by the word "fucking." (Sort of the rough equivalent of gringo, but significantly less kind.) I found some people claiming that it isn't intrinsically nasty, that it's all in the context, but people say the same thing about n*****, and I wouldn't use that for a title either, sooooooo I had to move on to something else even though haole was more or less the word I wanted.

So there's malihini, which mainly signifies visitors, tourists, people who are staying short-term and then going away. Which makes it the wrongest word imaginable, because this plant is almost certainly in Hawaii to stay, which is why I'd committed myself to using a Hawaiian word in the first place. A tourist plant would stay for a while and leave, not take over acres of countryside and settle down. So apparently kamaaina is as close as it gets, wrong though it is, and now I've burned a whole afternoon just writing the title. Awesome.

Now that that's out of the way.

It's a cute plant, right? One of the better pictures I've gotten, too, of any of the plants. I found it recently at a local supermarket (Hy-Vee, for those of you who have Hy-Vees), and didn't know what it was, and neither did the Hy-Vee floral department, so I concluded that I had to have it, much like with the Asplundia 'Jungle Drum' at Lowes. Plus it was only $3, so not a huge financial risk.

It turns out to be a close relative of the much more common (around here) coral berry, Ardisia crenata, though it's a prettier plant, I think. It's not seen a lot as a houseplant; as far as I know we've never had it where I work.

The common name is shoebutton tree, or (disturbingly) "duck eyes," both of which refer to the berries, which are red, turning to black/purple as they mature. Berries are edible but kind of insipid, and are mostly eaten by birds (in Hawaii) or a combination of birds and raccoons (in Florida).

The problem arises because animals distribute the plants in their droppings, and Ardisia elliptica is shade-tolerant, so it can sprout pretty much wherever the seeds land and then grow up to three feet per year. Flowers are self-fertile, so you only need one plant to get started. Seeds are produced year-round once the plant reaches maturity, in 2-4 years. Then seedlings from those sprout, the native vegetation gets starved for light and dies, the seedlings mature and flower, and then soon you have large expanses of island that are nothing but Ardisia, or Ardisia with a thin cover of taller native trees.

Ardisia elliptica is even more problematic in parts of Florida, because it thrives in marshy, wetland-type conditions. Hawaii is spared total Ardisification1 by virtue of having drier highland areas and plenty of competition from other invasives (Ardisia elliptica isn't the worst one by a long shot); Florida is also competitive, but there's so much contiguous wetland area there that there's room for a much bigger expanse, and Florida also seems to have been more enthusiastic about planting it as an ornamental, before its invasive nature was demonstrated.

It's native to southeast Asia, by the way: India southeast to New Guinea and then up maybe as far as China; nobody seems to have a real clear handle on where it came from, but the consensus seems to be that it's that general area somewhere.

Of course, the aspects of the plant that make it so much trouble outdoors make it a good houseplant, as is often the case. It handles low light well, though it grows better in bright light, including sun. It's tolerant of wet soil, so overwatering isn't as likely to kill it as some plants. Mine seems to deal okay with drying out, too – it wilts, but doesn't throw leaves. (On the other hand, I've seen some at Hy-Vee since then that were badly wilted and had dead leaves and stems, so its tolerance for drought has limits.) It grows really quickly – I bought mine in a three-inch pot in July, and by early November I had repotted it twice, first into a four-inch, then into a six-inch. The height of the plant hasn't seemed to increase as quickly, proportionally speaking, but the roots are insane.

Temperature does seem to be a bit of a concern, cold more than hot. I'm still waiting to see about humidity.

If you should have one set flowers and fruit, the fresh seeds are said to have a germination rate of 75% (Smithsonian Marine Station link, above) to 90% (my handy grower's reference guide, thank you Lynn P. Griffith, Jr.) if kept warm and moist for one to three months. Which is also good news if you want to grow your own seedlings, though be advised that you have to act quickly, because seeds don't store well.

I like my Ardisia elliptica. I do. It's cute, and so far I haven't had any problems with it. But keep yours indoors. In Florida, at least, it may be illegal not to: it's on their Category I list for invasives.2 In fairness, so are other ornamental plants, including some very familiar houseplants: Asparagus sprengeri (asparagus fern), Schefflera actinophylla (umbrella tree), Syngonium podophyllum (arrowhead plant), and Tradescantia spathacea (Moses in the cradle) among them. So don't be afraid of your elliptica, if you get one, but do be aware of the threat posed by invasive exotics: many perfectly nice, innocent creatures (including potential houseplants!) depend on you behaving responsibly.

EDITED 5/13/08: Dropped difficulty level from 3.1 to 1.7; humidity is less of an issue than I thought, and propagation is a lot easier as well.


Photo credits:
potted plant: me.
plant with berries: U.S. Geological Survey.

1(Oh yeah? Well what would you call it, then?)
2Defined as: "Invasive exotics that are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives." This is the categorization for plants that have actually caused documented ecological damage already.


Anonymous said...

Your husband was right ... "kamaaina" is often used for people who have lived in the islands for a long period of time [& generally intend to stay]. My local friends considered me a kamaaina when I was attending high school over there.

Samuel said...

I bought one of these a while back at Walmart. I love the handsome foliage. I separated the plantlets and have two growing independently now. And what fast growers they are! I think mine's shot up at least an inch in the last month.

Anonymous said...

So how DO you propagate it? Cuttings? Will the cut part resprout, like a dracaena marginata?

mr_subjunctive said...

I've propagated a cutting once: it's been a long time ago, now, but I think I rooted it in water and then transferred it to soil. The top did resprout, but only barely: I think it's shaded enough by the taller plants in the pot that it's not feeling very motivated to grow.

For large-scale production, people likely use seeds: it's not hugely practical in the home because plants won't flower until they're a certain size, and once they do flower, the berries take a while to form and mature, but it's not impossible. One of the individual plants in my pot of Ardisia elliptica flowered this fall (shortly after I reported that the ones at work had), and it looks like eventually there could be four or five berries as a result. Though they're also not developing very fast, and it's far from certain that they'll sprout for me if and when I plant them anyway.

Anonymous said...

Please, for the love of all that is holy in this world, do not have this plant. I live in South Florida and it is completely raping our threatened hammocks. There are plenty of native plants you can have, you don't need this one in your living. It's irresponsible and stupid to plant this in your yard or even have it on your porch. It is illegal to have this plant at all where I live, and with good reason. It can spread anywhere there is moisture and will shade out rare species. Having this plant even when you know all of this, as you have proved you do, is ridiculous and silly. You know this plant can ruin environments and yet choose to have it anyway.

mr_subjunctive said...

Um, Anonymous:

I live in Iowa (zone 5), and the plant can't go below 20F (zone 9), according to It also spends 99.9%+ of its time in the living room, where it has so far not raped anybody.

Rest assured that if it ever does rape somebody, or if it even looks like it's thinking about it, it will be destroyed immediately.

I await your apology for calling me irresponsible, stupid, ridiculous, and silly.

Anonymous said...

Well, you may await all you want. The fact that you are encouraging people to buy this plant is irresponsible, stupid, ridiculous, and silly. I have proved that you may have readers from South Florida, so you should keep in mind that anyone in the US can see your posts and may be enticed to buy this plant from your post. A. elliptica should stay in Asia. That is where they are supposed to live and where the environment is adapted to control them. In their native region there are over eight herbivores that eat this species, we have none here. We have to spend hours ripping it out and spraying herbicides because people like you wanted something "cute" in your house.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I will admit, I have been kind of rude to you. It's just I've had to rip out this plant in my Botany class and have heard so much about it that it's annoying to think there are still people out there buying it.

mr_subjunctive said...

Yes, you've been "kind of" rude. In the way that Jupiter is "kind of" large.

I understand what an invasive species is. I understand species being kept in check in their natural environments. I even understand warning people to act responsibly when it comes to potentially invasive species, which is why I did that in the post.

None of this makes this plant any less suitable for use as a houseplant, particularly indoors in a cold climate where even if someone did try to plant it outside, it wouldn't be able to escape into the wild and do any of the things you have just lectured me about it doing, things which -- just to hit this point one more time -- I was already aware of and warning other people about.

If you'd really like to get upset with someone -- and clearly you would -- you might consider this: where I worked, we got our tropical plants from Florida, which occasionally included Ardisia elliptica. Someone down there is growing them on purpose, in wholesale-type quantities, to ship up north for use as houseplants. I think they're doing this inside greenhouses, where they're not going to get planted outside, and I think they're shipping the plants out 18-24 months before they reach reproductive size, so they're not producing seeds which could spread to the outside, but don't let that stop you from getting indignant and mouth-foamy and everything.

So go. Sic 'em. Get off my ass. Don't let the door hit ya, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I don't understand why you can't just be happy with North American plants. Why do we need to import plants? Certain plants are meant to be in certain areas. Why do you get to blatantly ignore the way nature is organized? Who are we to change things that have been arranged for centuries so we can have something to sit in a pot in our living room? And the fact that you so obviously understand what an invasive species is is even more insulting, because you can’t even claim ignorance. You know these plants are not supposed to be on this continent and choose to have them anyway. And plus, that link you gave me says "where other saw swamps, alligators, and hot, humid weather, he saw opportunity for a large scale greenhouse operation”, this is the exact kind of people who are so damaging to the South Floridian landscape because they are draining those “swamps” with all of those “alligators” that are so vital to the way this environment works. And if I’d really like to get upset with someone, it should be you, because you are the demand for the product those assholes are supplying, if you didn’t buy their exotic plants, they wouldn’t grow them.

mr_subjunctive said...

I do not accept your premise that there are certain species which "should" be on one continent and not on another.

Joehaynus said...

"Who are we to change things that have been arranged for centuries so we can have something to sit in a pot in our living room?"

Humans, it's what we do.

Lucky said...

I came to your blog from a link given to me on a plant id forum. You see, I have purchased a nice new "tropical houseplant" ( oooh so very vague description) And someone, after looking at a picture, thinks that this might be that plant.
Anyways.. I've gotten a little side tracked. I came here to get some info. But I can not see through the tears of laughter from the comments and bantering back and forth. What a riot! Thanks for the information.... and the belly ache!

Lewis said...

OMG for the first time I saw a very nice Ardisia elliptica in a local nursery here in Seattle last week. I am very interested. I think I will give it a try. Thank you for your comprehensive information including the fact that it is an invasive species in several parts of the world.

I am 5 years late to this comment thread, but I buy your argument(s), Mr. Subjective.

Can North American human beings be satisfied with only North American plants? No way! Tomatoes and corns came from Mexico and now the whole world cannot live without them. Everyone hates the invasive blackberry (except for 6 weeks a year) humans still grow them on purpose. I myself have got lots of tropical plants (orchids from Taiwan, ponytail palm from Mexico, etc) as houseplants. I think I can imprison Ardisia it will be a great houseplant (and not invading anywhere). And I am sure it won't run out of my house and take over Seattle; too cold in the winter here (plus, the traffic is so bad here it's hard for the plant to get away).

Lewis said...

(Did the auto-correction feature really change Subjunctive to Subjective??!! Sorry about that)

batcave911 said...

i also dismiss the premise that we shouldnt grow plants from elsewhere.
plants have crossed continents for millions of years.
its been proven dozens of times by DNA.
birds bring seeds, driftwood floats for miles carrying seedlings and seeds.
we (humans) are PART of the nature that does this.
i live in South Louisiana, and there are lots of invasives.
some hold the soil together is the swamp.
nutria is one of the most destructive. now, they are on the menu.
things CHANGE, they always have and always will.

by the way... this plant is edible
so, if we humans start to destroy ourselves
or nature sends a meteor strike
and there are millions hungry, you might just thank humans for invasives.

JoJo said...

Many years later but the comments are just as entertaining! I just bought some seed since I can't seem to find the actual plant anywhere. My plant(s) will be living in the high desert foothills of New Mexico, where there is zero chance of them invading anything, because even if a seed landed somewhere there was actually water and rooted, the winter chill will kill it. As due diligence, I've examined my intentions and the known consequences and do not find this endeavor to be ridiculous, silly, nor destructive to the environment. :D