When you hike or walk in the rainforests of the Hawaiian Islands, you are almost certainly going to see a beautiful broad leafed plant with waxy red pine cone shaped flowers or bulbs. This beautiful and useful plant is ‘Awapuhi kuahiwi, commonly known in Hawaii as simply ‘Awapuhi and in English called ‘Shampoo Ginger’.
You may not know it, but you’ve probably used this fragrant plant - not in food, but in your shampoo. Paul Mitchell was the first of the big shampoo brands to use ‘Awapuhi in their shampoos, but not the first people. Hawaiians have been using ‘Awapuhi for thousands of years. If you squeeze the flower-bulb, you will be rewarded with a fragrant and slightly slimy water that will lather up! It’s nature’s soap dispenser.
‘Awapuhi likes it best in the lower areas of a wet and open rainforest. The plant only gets to be a couple of feet tall. It is composed of the bract (a modified leaf, resembling a bulb) which are green when immature and then red at maturity. Individuals flowers grow from the bracts one at a time. The flower is surrounded by six to eight inch leaves that held some medicinal value for the Hawaiians. The leaves of ‘awapuhi were dried and burned - the resulting ash was with bamboo ash and kukui nut sap to treat cuts and sores on the skin.
Hawaiians would also make an extract from the ‘awapuhi sap and mix it with olena to treat pimples, sores in the nose, and other external conditions.
There are many places you can find ‘awapuhi on Oahu. It is plentiful on rainforest hikes, in botanical gardens, and even growing in people’s yards. Now you know the secret Paul Mitchell knew all along - there’s a reason Hawaiian women have such beautiful hair!