By Russell T. Nagata
University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Komohana Research and Extension Center
Looking past the Christmas holiday only a few days away, New Year’s is just another week away, and here in Hawaii the two plants that help to symbolizes the holiday are the pine and bamboo in an arrangement called a kadomatsu.
The tradition came to Hawaii from Japan with the Japanese immigrants brought to work on the pineapple and sugar cane plantations. The literal translation for kadomatsu is “gate pine” and the arrangements are normally placed in pairs in front of the home, normally on either side of the door or gate.
Designs vary, but the basics are three bamboo poles of different lengths, with the tops cut at an angle and bound together with natural fiber ropes with pine branches added to the arrangement. The different heights of the bamboo represent heaven, humanity and earth. The pine symbolizes longevity and endurance, while the bamboo symbolizes growth, prosperity and strength.
The ume, or plum, sprigs are sometimes added to symbolize steadfastness. The belief was that the kadomatsu brought good luck by welcoming the ancestral spirits (kama) by serving as temporary housing for the spirits, who thereby bestowed the homeowner with a bountiful harvest.
Depending on the specific tradition you follow, as determined by the region in which you lived, kadomatsu is displayed during the second half of December and into January. In Japan, preparations for the New Year begin on Dec. 13 and, to some, this is the date on which you can begin to display a kadomatsu. Many in Hawaii wait until after Christmas to set up their display. The date you take down the display also varies, with some indicating Jan. 7, and others Jan. 15. Tradition agrees that the kadomatsu be burned to release the spirits within.
There are hundreds of species of bamboo that are found growing in many parts of the world, from the tropics to temperate zones, and dozens to select from in Hawaii. Bamboo can range in size from small grass-like plants to towering giants with stems 8 inches in diameter and over 70 feet tall. Most of the bamboo in Hawaii are tropically adapted species and grow best with ample moisture and a warm climate. In making a traditional kadomatsu arrangement, it is better to use a thicker-walled variety which is easier to cut cleanly.
Pines are characterized by having resinous wood and cones that house seeds on flattened cone scales. All true pines belong to the family Pinaceae, which contains about 210 species worldwide. Many are of economic importance for timber and pulpwood for paper manufacturing. Traditionally, species in the genus Pinus is used for kadomatsu arrangement. In Japan the black pine, Pinus thunbergii, red pine, Pinus densiflora, and white pine, Pinus parviflora is commonly used for kadomatsu arrangements.
Pines are not native to Hawaii, however more than a dozen species have become established in Hawaii as part of reforestation projects at elevations ranging from 2,000 to 13,000. They can also be found as landscape trees and as bonsai plants in many gardens. There are good specimens of pine trees around the Waimea Civic Center, and in the Hilo area, you can find large black pines growing in yards. Some of the more common pines in Hawaii are the Monterey, Mexico, Loblolly, Benguet, Slash, Japanese Black, Japanese Red, Short Leaf and Western Yellow.
Most pines in Hawaii do better at elevations above 2,000 feet, probably due to the slightly cooler temperatures. They generally do well in moist, well-drained soil with good aeration and with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. When planting seedlings, it is best to protect them from the elements, especially too much sun that could cause sunburn on the foliage, and from drying out, as this will be a near certain death if the needles discolor. Once established in the landscape, pines need little care to grow, provided that they receive adequate moisture
As a side note, the ironwood, Casuarina equisetifolia, is commonly used as a substitute for pine, even in many kadomatsu arrangements. In the southern United States where it grows, it is commonly referred to as Australian pine in honor of its native home. However, the ironwood is not a pine at all, nor is it closely related to the pine. Ironwood might look like a pine with its thin needle-like leaves (actually jointed grooved branchlets) and cone-like seedpods, but is actually a true flowering plant. True flowering plants have seeds enclosed within one or more layer of plant tissues (ie. fruits, seed pods). Look closely at the ironwood seed pod and you will see that two structures of the pod open to reveal the seed within.
Pines, on the other hand, are classified as Gymnospermae and are characterized by having naked seeds borne on the surface of cone scales.
Wishing all of you a happy and prosperous New Year, and may all of your gardens flourish as well.
For more information on this and other gardening topics, please visit the CTAHR electronic publication website at http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/Info.aspx or visit any of the local Cooperative Extension Service offices around the Island. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.