Unlike the poisonous berries Katniss Everdeen uses to outsmart the Capitol in The Hunger Games, ohelo berries are far from deadly. In fact, they’re quite tasty, ranging from somewhat tart in the raw to mildly sweet when cooked. The Hawaiian nēnē goose would agree on its decadence, as ohelo have become a favorite snack for the state bird.
Ōhelo at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
If you confuse ohelo with the poison akia berry, then you’ll really find yourself in the dreaded Hunger Games arena. And let me be the first to tell you that the odds won’t “be ever in your favor” either. The akia look similar to ohelo but have a single, large seed inside, whereas ohelo have tiny seeds. So be careful not to mix up the two!
The ohelo berries grow at higher altitudes from June to September. You’ll mostly find them on small shrubs in the Volcano area of the Big Island, which includes the nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and on Haleakala in Maui. Park rangers prohibit visitors from picking the berries within the park’s boundaries because they’re reserved for the protected nēnē.
Since they thrive in volcanic habitats, ancient Hawaiians believed ohelo to be sacred to volcano goddess Pele. They even tossed branches of berries into Kilauea volcano as offerings.
Ōhelo can be various shades of red, yellows and oranges. Unlike other fruits, the berries’ color does not indicate ripeness. A friend let me try some red ones from his yard; they turned out to be really sweet but with a subtle tartness similar to cherries. After doing a little more research, I learned that ohelo are actually related to the cranberry plant.
The best way to try ohelo would be to get them in jam form at a farmers’ market. It’s likely that each jar consists of berries handpicked from the wild rather than from a commercial farm, which make them unique in today’s thriving agricultural industry. But if your’e confident in your berry identification, then look for them on your next hike. They’re one of the unique island flavors that shouldn’t be missed!
Posted by: Bruce Fisher