Oh Hello, ‘Ōhelo Berries!

Ancient Hawaiian legend warns not to pick the ‘ōhelo berries on the way to the Kilauea volcano crater, doing so will bring fog and mist and cause you to lose your way. At the crater a churning lake of lava can be seen, it glows red at night as the liquid rock splatters and bubbles at the edges. Once you arrive at the crater you can pick berries but you must toss the first berry you pick towards the crater as an offering to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. Then you may pick as many ‘ōhelo berries as you please. I always try to remember to throw a berry towards the direction of the crater but it seems that the mist, rain and fog is here to stay at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center located on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Just a few steps outside our aviaries resides a regenerating Hawaiian rain forest; small shrubs dot the landscape along with other native plants and trees. On some of these shrubs hang berries that range in vibrant colors from dark crimson to fiery gold. A handful of berries for the birds, and maybe a few for me! Vaccinium reticulatum, known as ‘ōhelo in Hawaiian, is a flowering shrub that is related to the cranberry and blueberry plants and share a similar tart taste. They can be made into jams, jellies, and some local restaurants even add them to their cocktails! What makes ‘ōhelo unique and extremely special is that it is endemic to Hawaii and can’t be found anywhere else on earth.

In addition to being edible for humans, these berries are one of several important food sources for native Hawaiian forest birds. On this day in particular, the bird I’m picking these berries for is the ʻalalā. The ʻalalā are currently extinct in the wild and only a little over 100 exist in captivity today. Unlike their relatives the American Crow and Common Raven on the mainland, ʻalalā are primarily frugivores and their diet mainly consists of native fruits and seeds. In order to help keep the captive ʻalalā happy and healthy we try to incorporate as many native fruits into their diet as possible.

I’m excited for the day that the ʻalalā will be back out in the wild and can pick ‘ōhelo berries for themselves. In addition I hope that the return of the ʻalalā to the forest will be beneficial for the native plants. As the ‘ōhelo berry seeds leave the digestive tract of the ʻalalā they will hopefully be spread to new parts of the forest that they wouldn’t have had the means to get to before. For now I consider myself pretty lucky that part of my job is to go berry picking in a beautiful Hawaiian forest!

Amy Kuhar is a research associate at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. Read her previous blog, The Alala’s Favorite Fruits: Oha Wai.