Brighamia insignis (2009)

PhotoBy Peggy Galantowicz (February 2009)

I am proud to be the winner of the January attendance prize, the show-worthy Brighamia insignis. These plants have swollen, rounded bases that grow up into a stout, fleshy stem. The dense rosette of shiny, spoon-shaped leaves are 4 to 8 inches long and perch at the top of the stem. The leathery leaves vary in color from bright to dark green. Stems are usually between 18 and 24 inches, but can reach heights of 3 to 6 feet. The plant blooms in winter with three to eight cream to yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers that have a mild honeysuckle scent.

Brighamia insignis was named after William Tufts Brigham (1841-1926), the first director of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. It is also known as alula, olulu palm, Hawaiian palm, vulcan palm or the droll “cabbage on a stick.”

B. insignis is native to the Hawaiian islands of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau, where it grows on steep sea cliffs or rocky ledges with little soil. It was in danger of extinction because its original pollinator, the long-tongued sphingid or hawk moth, was eliminated over the years due to human development of the islands. The plant’s survival has also been threatened by competition from invasive and aggressive exotic vegetation, predation and disturbance by goats, landslides, destructive hurricanes and occasional removal of plants by collectors.

Now the plants are preserved by people who rappel up and down the 3,000-foot cliffs to manually pollinate and collect seed. The seeds are then propagated in greenhouses with specialized facilities to ensure survival of the new plants.

Brighamia insignis is considered very robust but requires certain care. It needs sufficient yet indirect light, moderate watering and a regular but measured dose of plant food. The plant doesn’t have a rest period during the year, although growth is stronger in summer than in winter.

New leaves are formed at the top, and the older bottom leaves may turn yellow and should be removed. Regular removal of the oldest leaves helps the plant retain a fresh appearance and stimulates growth.

My plant is 9 inches tall with 18 mature leaves and a thick cluster of new growth in the center of the rosette. It is now living in bright, indirect light, good ventilation and an even temperature of about 55 to 65 degrees. Three of the lower leaves have yellowed and dropped off. I keep telling myself, “Don’t panic!” I hope my brighamia will remain healthy and happy, and visit you all at our cactus show.

For a beautiful picture of a Brighamia insignis clinging to a sheer cliff wall, find the online book review of Marie McDonald and Paul Weissich’s book Na Lei Makamae, page 125.