The Hāpu'u fern can be found all over the east side of the Big Island. The ferns grow well from sea level on up to 6,000 ft, but the most spectacular ferns are found in Volcano and the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
There are actually three varieties of Hāpu'u that grow on the Big Island. They differ in size from the smaller Hāpu'u 'i'i (Cibotium chamissoi) to ones that grow to huge heights.
A fern frond begins as a curled up shoot. As it matures it unfurls - with each of the leafy fingers also unfurling in a true fractal form. Once the fern has matured it is a rather large frond on a rigid stem and can provide ample shade.
The Hāpu'u has been used in a number of ways. As the young shoots uncurl they have a fine golden hair that is very soft, almost like velvet. This hair is called pulu and it was collected in the 1800's and used commercially as stuffing for pillows and mattresses. The remenants of an old pulu factory can still be seen on the Napau Crater trail in the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.
Hāpu'u has also been used to commercially grow anthuriums as the anthurium enjoys the type of shade the hāpu'u provides.
Hāpu'u is also used as a food. Both the young core and new leaves can be cooked - but in general it is not at the top of the list of tasty dishes.
The hāpu'u is a very dense tree, and big trees are extremely heavy. It is not uncommon for a big tree to be come so top heavy that it cracks at the base and falls over. Even though the roots are completely severed from the ground, the tree does not die. Instead, within a week or two, the branches will begin lifting upwards and new ferns will grow straight up from the now horizontal trunk. Cutting a hāpu'u into large segments can often result in each segment starting a new fern - they are very hearty plants.