A member of the Heliotrope family, kou is a small to medium-sized tree growing to about 30 feet high. It prefers sunny warm coastal lowlands. Historically, it was cultivated near settlements and is only rarely found in native forests.
Like the dutch elm, the kou was nearly wiped out by a moth in the late 1800s. But, it has made a good recovery and is once again common in the islands.
(The pictured kou tree is at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Park near Kawaihae about 35 miles north of Kailua-Kona.)
The kou has soft, medium-grained sapwood and creamy yellow-brown and dark chocolate heartwood which sometimes contains stripes. It is this dark heartwood that was used to adorn some of the Palace furniture. The carved detail below is kou trim on Kalakaua's armoir.
Traditionally, kou wood was used for bowls and other eating utensils. The kou leaves provided a brown dye for fishing lines and kapa cloth. The seeds could be eaten and the flowers were used in lei making.
The tree's lovely unscented orange flowers make it easy to identify. Blossoms are present year round. The fruit is marble size and grows in small clusters.
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