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Heteropogon contortus

leaf Main Plant Information

Genus

Heteropogon

Species

contortus

Hawaiian Names with Diacritics

  • Lule
  • Pili

Hawaiian Names

  • Lule
  • Pili

Common Names

  • Pili grass
  • Spear grass
  • Tanglehead
  • Twisted beardgrass

leaf Plant Characteristics

Distribution Status

Indigenous

Endangered Species Status

No Status

Plant Form / Growth Habit

  • Non-Woody, Clumping

Mature Size, Height (in feet)

  • Grass-like, Short, Less than 1
  • Grass-like, Medium, 1 to 2.5
  • Grass-like, Tall, Greater than or equal to 2.5

Mature Size, Width

Pili has a 2- to 5-foot spread. There are also some prostrate forms in cultivation.

Life Span

Short lived (Less than 5 years)

Landscape Uses

  • Accent
  • Erosion Control
  • Ground Cover
  • Hedges

Additional Landscape Use Information

A terrific accent plant in dry sunny areas. Though basically a xeric grass, pili will remain greener longer and looks nicer with regular watering.

Taller forms can be used as a tall groundcover and will grow in thick when planted close together. There some prostrate forms of pili that may qualify as a groundcover.

Source of Fragrance

  • Leaves

Additional Fragrance Information

Early Hawaiians used pili for thatch and enjoyed its pleasant odor.

Plant Produces Flowers

Yes

leaf Flower Characteristics

Flower Type

Not Showy

Flower Colors

  • Brownish
  • White

Blooming Period

  • Year Round

leaf Leaf Characteristics

Plant texture

  • Coarse

Additional Plant Texture Information

Leaves are up to 12 inches long.

Leaf Colors

  • Medium Green

Additional Leaf Color Information

Leaves of pili are a pale bluish green.

leaf Pests and Diseases

Additional Pest & Disease Information

Pili is occasionally subject to attacks by scale, mealy bugs, locusts, and grasshoppers, but is otherwise generally pest free.

leaf Growth Requirements

Fertilizer

Pili does not require much additional fertilizer to remain healthy. Small applications of foliar feeding with an organic or soluble commercial fertilizer monthly or every other month from one third to one fourth of the recommended strength is beneficial. [David Eickhoff, Native Plants Hawaiʻi]

Pruning Information

None, but can be trimmed yearly or bi-yearly to 6 inches to encourage new growth.

Water Requirements

  • Dry

Additional Water Information

Water pili when it is dry until they are well established. Plants can tolerate both dry and moist conditions.

Soil must be well drained

Yes

Light Conditions

  • Full sun
  • Partial sun

Additional Lighting Information

Pili appears to do best in full sun.

Spacing Information

Plants should be spaced 1 to 2 feet apart. When planted close it makes a good tall groundcover or low hedge.

Tolerances

  • Drought
  • Wind
  • Salt Spray
  • Heat

Soils

  • Sand
  • Cinder
  • Organic

leaf Environmental Information

Natural Range

  • Niʻihau
  • Kauaʻi
  • Oʻahu
  • Molokaʻi
  • Lānaʻi
  • Maui
  • Kahoʻolawe
  • Hawaiʻi

Natural Zones (Elevation in feet, Rainfall in inches)

  • Less than 150, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 150 to 1000, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 1000 to 1999, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 2000 to 2999, 0 to 50 (Dry)

Additional Habitat Information

Pili is found on dry rocky cliffs, ledges or slopes close to ocean exposure.

Being displaced by alien grasses and shrubs, pili is not as common as in the past and seems to be disappearing in some areas, especially on Oʻahu and Molokaʻi.

leaf Special Features and Information

General Information

The Grass family (Poaceae) comprise 9,000-10,000 species worldwide. Over 80 species of grasses are native to the Hawaiian Islands, most of which are endemic, with a few considered rare and endangered.

Pili (Heteropogon contortus) is possibly indigenous.

Etymology

The generic name Heteropogon is derived from the Greek heteros, different, and pogon, beard in reference to the two kinds of spikelets  found in the inflorescence of this species.

True to the Latin specific epithet contortus, pili seeds have an unusual habit of contorting when wet in order to burrow head into the soil.

Hawaiian Name:

The Hawaiian name pili means "to cling or stick."

Background Information

Botanist Joel Lau notes two forms of pili in the Hawaiian Islands:

"The erect type of H. contortus occurs on all of the main Hawaiian Islands. The prostrate type only occurs in a few areas in the Hawaiian Islands where the prevailing trade winds are stronger than normal. I have seen it in the wild only on northwestern Molokaʻi (east of Moʻomomi), northwestern Lānaʻi, and on Hawai`i in the area of Kalae. On Molokaʻi and at Kalae, where the prostrate type was seen, it was the only type present. On northwestern Lānaʻi, however, the prostrate and erect types occurred together.

These cultivated plants of both the prostrate type and the erect type were from northwestern Lānaʻi. The erect type volunteers prolifically in cultivation, whereas the prostrate type only spreads vegetatively."

Pili is, and was, an important habitat for several native creatures such as land snails.*

The harpoon-like attachments on the seeds attach to fur and feathers as a method of dispersal. [7]

_____

* Small terrestrial snails such as Cookeconcha undescribed sp.?, Lyropupa perlonga, and Endodonta undescribed sp.? were once found among pili grass at Koko Head, Oʻahu in great numbers. Now known from sub-fossil/fossil sediments from Barbers Point (Kalaeloa), Oʻahu. These snails may have existed in similar habitats such as those that are found in bunchgrass (Eragrostis sp.) on Nīhoa. [10]

Early Hawaiian Use

Dye:

A black dye was made from the charcoaled leaf blades. [1]

House Construction:

Whether indigenous or a Polynesian introduction, early Hawaiians used pili as their first choice for thatching roofs and for its brown color, neat appearance, and pleasant odor. [1,6,8] Pili was harvested by uprooting a bunch. The soil, roots, and flowering spikes were trimmed and the pili bunch was ready for use. They were tied in rows with stems up, placed close together and worked from the bottom of the frame upwards. Pili thatch was replaced every four or five years. [8]

Medicinal:

Burned pili and ashes mixed with coconut was used for ʻea (thrush) and pāʻaoʻao (childhood disease with physical weakening). [2]

Other Uses:

The leaves were also used to stuff matresses, padd floors, and as a tinder. [3]

Modern Use

Both the upright and prostrate forms are in cultivation and not restricted to the Hawaiian Islands. [5]  The upright form is used in culture and in native gardens in Hawaiʻi.

Pili has been used in conservation efforts on Kahoʻolawe and as a roadside grass to "displace invasive species along local transportation corridors." [9]

Additional References

[1] "Plants in Hawaiian Culture" by Beatrice H. Krauss, pages 59, 67.

[2] "Native Planters in Old Hawaii--Their Life, Lore, & Environment" by E. S. Handy and Elizabeth green Handy, page 239.

[3] "Amy Greenwell Garden Ethnobotanical Guide to Native Hawaiian Plants & Polynesian Introduced Plants" by Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, page 37.

[4] "Native Hawaiian Medicine--Volume III" by The Rev. Kaluna M. Kaʻaiakamanu, page 86.

[5] "Seed Production and Germination Studies of Spear Grass in Dry Grasslands of Central India" by P.S. Pathak & S.S. Parihar, pages 33-39.

[6] "In Gardens of Hawaii" by Marie C. Neal, page 80.

[7] "Hawai'i's Plants and Animals--Biological Sketches of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park" by Charles P. Stone & Linda W. Pratt, page 109.

[8] "Lāʻau Hawaiʻi: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants" by Isabella Aiona Abbott, page 69.

[9] "Pili Grass as Roadside Vegetation" by Joe DeFrank and Scott Lukas in "Hawaii Landscape," February/March 2012, pages 12-13.

[10] "Nonmarine Mollusks and Ecological Change at Barbers Point, Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi" by Carl C. Christensen and Patrick V. Kirsch, pages 58, 59.

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