Pulu Factories

Hapuʻu pulu fern fiddlehead
Hapuʻu pulu fiddlehead (NPS Photo/A. LaValle)

In the mid-1800ʻs, one of several burgeoning industries that brought change to the Hawaiian landscape was pulu collection. Pulu is the soft, downy material that grows aroud the fronds and fiddleheads of the hāpuʻu pulu fern.

The first known commercial sale of pulu was made in 1847, when a businessman who had acquired some pulu as a payment on a debt sent it to San Francisco, where it was found to make an excellent stuffing for pillows and mattresses. Pulu soon became a highly marketable commodity, with high demand for the product coming all the way from Europe. By 1862, an astounding 788,000 pounds of the lightweight material had been exported from Hawaiʻi. But the boom was over by 1884 and the industry soon died. The processing centers and small transient communities that were established to support production were quickly abandoned with the end of the trade.

During the boom, Judge George Anson Byron Kaina of Hilo started two processing centers (interchangably referred to as "factories" or "stations") in the Kīlauea region: one at Nāpau on the east rift zone and the other just north of Kīlauea caldera. Judge Kaina hired families from Kaʻū and Puna to collect the pulu and work at the processing centers, where the pulu was dried and compacted into 100 pound bales for shipment through Keauhou to Honolulu. Pulu was also collected in Kahuku on the west side of Mauna Loa and in upland Kona.

 
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Take a virtual walk-through of a portion of the pulu station at Nāpau using LIDAR scans of the site. [Video contains no audio]

 

Pulu collection was labor intensive. As Archeologist Catherine Glidden wrote of the pulu station at Nāpau, "the actual harvesting of pulu was usually completed by first cutting the stalk of the hāpuʻu with a stone tool, thus exposing the fronds and fiddleheads. The pulu was then removed with a bone scraper and placed in burlap bags" Fires were set nearby to help dry the pulu, then it was taken out and compacted once it was dry for more efficient shipping. Each tree fern produced only five ounces of material, while thirty pounds were needed to fill a single mattress.

The Nāpau pulu station was likely abandoned due to overharvesting around 1867. It was rediscovered in 1924 by a scientist from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory who stumbled across it while conducting surveys around Makaopuhi Crater. Its walls still stand to this day and are visible along the trail to Nāpau Crater.

 
Stone walls in a rainforest
Walls of the Nāpau pulu station (NPS Photo/J. Frey)
 
 

Last updated: February 18, 2021

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