Fern medicine practitioner Ke‘oni Hanalei suggests we forage our way to a transcendent way of living, breathing, and being.
It is an unusual January day in ʻĪao Valley. Normally shrouded in clouds, the valley’s lush peaks rise proud and unencumbered. The sky shines a misty blue. “We hardly ever have days like this,” marvels Ke‘oni Hanalei.
Born and raised on Maui, Hanalei is the founder of Pōhala Botanicals, a line of teas, tinctures, oils, and mists derived from foraged ferns. As a practitioner of fern medicine, part of his plant-gathering protocol is acknowledging hō‘ailona (signs). Hanalei smiles at me before turning his face to the sun.
“This is really special,” he says.
Medicinal practices of lāʻau lapaʻau have long reflected the deep cultural and spiritual connection Hawaiians have to the environment.
Plant-based treatments for disease and injury are rich and extensive: ‘awa for reducing insomnia and anxiety, ‘ōlena (turmeric) for its anti-inflammatory properties, noni for treatment of deep wounds. Ferns are also used in lāʻau lapaʻau, but Hanalei believes these plants are particularly special: They represent emotions, the subtle, intelligent energy that underlies all life.
“Fern medicine is all about the healing properties of ikehu (energy),” Hanalei says. “It has less to do with the biological components of a plant that manipulate the physical body and more about emotional intelligence and maturity.”
If emotions can shape our experience, they can also influence our healing, Hanalei claims. A man of liminality, he emphasizes the twin values of both physical and spiritual wellbeing.
“The spirit is truly the seat of our consciousness and house of power,” Hanalei says. “This is how we nourish our physical bodies. We begin with the spirit.”
Hanalei sources ferns from private lands on Maui and Kauaʻi. Each of the 103 ferns he works with correlates with a distinct emotion, trait, or virtue and is either masculine or feminine—masculine ferns being steeped in logic and reason, and feminine ferns in intuition and emotional health.
His personal fern catalog, curated and fine-tuned over the last three decades, reads as an exquisite blend of ephemeral and botanical: The palapalai fern, with its lime-green fronds and distinctive hairy blades, sourced by hula practitioners for adornment, represents divine discipline; the puapuamoa, a fern that is slender, elegant, and elongated, speaks to divine vulnerability; the full-spreading niʻaniʻau fern, often found growing near loʻi, personifies divine abundance.
Fern medicine allows us to reconnect and commune with emotional energies, according to Hanalei. In embracing them, we pave a pathway to our higher selves.
We head into the deep green of the forest, our footsteps pressing kukui nut shells into the cool, damp earth. The latticework of branches above us dapples sunlight onto our faces. Hanalei moves with ease and a practiced eye, pausing at intervals to introduce ferns.
“This is paʻiwaʻiwa,” he says, gently stroking a fragile-looking fern with dainty, heart-shaped leaf clusters. “She represents divine truth.” Moments later, he points out a broad, tapering fern, and says, “That one is laukahi, he’s divine magnetism.”
The botanical irony doesn’t escape me later when I learn that laukahi is especially attractive to ants and spider mites.
We hear the stream before we see it. When Hanalei enters the water, he breaks into an ‘oli, an offering of respect. Around him, the currents rush swift and cold in the winter sun.
Then he moves nimbly among the boulders seeking a space to submerge a glass jar filled with ferns. He tells me he will leave it here until the next moon phase, upon which he will bury it in the earth for another moon phase, then leave it exposed in an open field for yet another.
Lastly, he will enact the “elemental procession,” burning the plant matter in a ritual fire. Infused with the sacred, elemental energies of water, earth, air, and fire, the residual white ash—what Hanalei considers to be the plant’s DNA in purest form—will be a potent, spagyric medicine.
Each Pōhala creation includes this medicine, explains Hanalei. The applications are myriad. Users can add a few drops of fern tincture into tea or diffuse a fern mist into their homes. Fern oils can be lathered directly on skin.
Hanalei’s introduction to medicinal ferns came at the behest of his maternal grandmother. A tall, broad-shouldered Hawaiian woman, Kau‘ikeonalani Kaipo-Akina was a kahuna (healer) of formidable presence. “Tūtū sounded like she was perpetually chanting, there always was this vibrato to her voice,” Hanalei says. “She intimidated people because she was not afraid to express her power.” Kaipo-Akina raised Hanalei, her last grandchild, as a way to pass down her ancestral knowledge. “My tūtū taught me everything I know about fern medicine,” Hanalei says. Hanalei’s grandfather, however, did not always embrace her mission. Trouble often arose when grandmother and grandson performed ceremonies together.
“He would lock us out of the house and we’d have to sleep in the laundry room with towels,” Hanalei recalls. “To him it was kapu.”
Hanalei returned to his parents’ care when he was five years old, exchanging sacred culture for conventional life.
“My parents had been raised in the generation where you didn’t dance hula or speak ‘ōlelo (Hawaiian),” Hanalei says. Then, at 28 years old, Hanalei was diagnosed with embryonic carcinoma, a form of testicular cancer. The ensuing days brought fear and isolation, addiction and hopelessness, an ordeal Hanalei calls the “dark night of the soul.”
It lasted six years.
Looking back, Hanalei considers his spiral into the abyss a pivotal lesson in surrender. Akin to an arrow’s drawback, giving into the emotional, physical, and spiritual torment allowed his release into true self-awareness and acceptance. He felt called back to nature and the time spent with his grandmother.
“Those days with Tūtū, those days had been filled with purpose and meaning,” he says. In the forest, Hanalei found a familiar peace. Through ferns, he found redemption.
At his cottage in the uplands of Kula, Hanalei applies modern methods of fermentation, steam distillation, and enfleurage to his cultural practice. In a cozy room, bundles of dried ferns hang on the wall.
A tiered table holds tidy rows of glass jars and bottles. Next to a window, a distiller is full of freshly cut lauaʻe ferns. As the boiling water steams through the green foliage, a light, nearly imperceptible fragrance releases into the air.
Soon, the scent becomes heady and intoxicating. Lauaʻe, he tells me, is the representation of divine beauty.
Hanalei believes humanity is becoming less reliant on logic and reason and more receptive to the mystical unknown.
“The shift we are experiencing right now is our waking up from stupor,” Hanalei says. “We are realizing there is a lot more to our lives than what we can touch.”
I ask him the significance behind his company’s name, a question that delights him due to its numerous answers.
Aside from the sonorous qualities of “pōhala”—“I love the way it feels and sounds,” he explains—it is also a reference to Pō Wā, a spiritual dark age in which he believes we currently reside, a time where humans are more fixated on physical rather than etheric components of consciousness like emotions. Whereas “pō” means night, darkness, and obscurity, “pohala” means to recover consciousness, and “pōhala” can be interpreted as “to ascend.” Indeed, the darkest hour is always before dawn.
Hanalei forages ferns during mahina hapalua hope (the waning period of the moon). He shares the following tips:
One Seek laua‘e fronds with mature spores on their undersides, which denotes they are adult. Doing so allows younger fronds to mature. Also, adult fronds are more fragrant and flavorful.
Three Before picking, keep your left hand a few inches from the fern frond. Close your eyes, connect, and ask for permission to harvest. The response is nearly always a sensation—like a “ping” in your hand or body. If it is subtle, like a tickle, you’ve been given permission; if it comes as subtle discomfort, like a pinch, the fern is asking for more time to mature.
Two Always pick with the left hand (the hand of receiving).
Hanalei is pleased to see the revival of fern medicine. For those interested in it but unsure where to start, a fern tea is an easy introduction. Below, Hanalei shares his recipe for a relaxing evening tea.
Hiamoe Lauaʻe Tea (Dreamtime Tea)
2 adult blades of laua‘e (musk fern), stripped from stem
1 cinnamon stick
3-5 buds lavender (or ¼ cup loose lavender flowers)
Add fern blades, cinnamon stick, and lavender to electric spice grinder