1. n. The lace fern (Sphenomeris chinensis syn. chusana), a common wild fern in Hawaiʻi; also known in other parts of Polynesia and in Asia. Long, slender stems support smooth, ovate, pointed fronds, about 30 cm long, which are subdivided three times. Formerly a brown dye was extracted from the fronds. Also palapalaʻā and pāʻū-o-Palaʻe. (Neal 15, 16.)
2. n. A tapa of māmaki bark dyed brownish-red with palaʻā fern, of silky quality.
3. vs. Brownish-red.
4. n. Type of stone, used for sinkers for octopus fishing.
Palaʻā, sometimes referred to as lace fern, is one of my favorite ferns for lei making. It is so delicate, yet hardy. It loves to grow in areas that have been disturbed, so it is often one of the first plants to burst forth after a trail has been forged. It is indigenous to Hawaiʻi and can be found throughout the islands but amazingly, you probably won’t find it in your nearest plant nursery! I am guessing it isn’t easy to cultivate. I understand there are places on Oʻahu, on the windward side perhaps, that has an abundance of palaʻā. I have never seen it. In Waiʻanae, where I grew up, we were more apt to find lush patches of palapalai, another fern I will feature this week. I find the main stem of the palaʻā to be much more woody than that of the palapalai.
Palaʻā is important in hula. A companion sent by Pele to accompany Hiʻiaka on her journey was a woman/goddess known as Pāʻū-o-palaʻā (sometimes spelled palaʻe). It is said that Hiʻiaka was able to successfully battle against a moʻo of Puna, wearing a pāʻū (skirt) made of palaʻā. The moʻo became tangled within her pāʻū. For my first ʻuniki (“graduation of sorts) as an ʻōlapa (dancer), I was told to include palaʻā, specially picked on Kauaʻi, in my lei because of the importance it has in hula. Ever since, palaʻā has held an extra special place in my world.
A brown-red dye can be made from the old palaʻā (see #3 above) and I understand it can also be used for medicinal purposes, healing female problems.