In The Garden
Official state flower looks different between islands
Ma'o hau hele
Hawaii's official state flower
Description: A shrub with maple-like leaves and bright-yellow flowers that can grow up to 10 feet. This plant varies in appearance between islands but generally falls into two subspecies: H. brackenridgei, subspecies brackenridgei, of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii; and H. brackenridgei, subspecies mokuleianus, of Oahu and Kauai. The most visible difference between the two is in the leaves and stems. Subspecies mokuleianus has leaves with more serrated margins and pink veins; the branches have tiny spines. Subspecies brackenridgei has leaves with more rounded margins and yellow veins and lacks the spines on the branches. Recently, a previously undescribed variety of H. brackenridgei from Makua Valley on Oahu was discovered with characteristics of both, making it very appealing. Its leaves resemble those of the subspecies brackenridgei, but with pink veins like subspecies mokuleianus. Although it is from Oahu, it lacks the branch thorns of mokuleianus -- a good thing, because those can hurt. It's obvious that more work needs to be done to place this new plant into a more specific category.
This endemic species is found only in Hawaii. It is also endangered in the wild, with the few remaining populations usually found in the dry to mesic forests of all the main islands except Niihau. (It was once reportedly collected from Kahoolawe, but no longer exists there.)
Landscape uses and care: This plant does well in full sun to partial shade and needs very little water, although daily watering is OK. It is a fast grower and will flower twice a year. Each flowering period lasts up to two months, with blooms occurring daily on a flowering stalk that rises up above the rest of the plant. Unlike most hibiscus, this plant doesn't perform well as a hedge. It looks best as a specimen plant.
Rose beetles might attack the leaves of Maohaohele at night and leave them looking like Swiss cheese. To prevent this, plant near a light, such as landscape lighting or a bright street or porch light. Leave the lights on from dusk until at least 8 p.m. -- that should keep those nasty munchers away. Occasionally, whiteflies might be found under the leaves. Any store-bought pesticide should remedy that problem.
More information: The name of this plant -- ma'o hau hele -- literally means the "traveling green hau." It probably got this name because many times the plant will become top heavy and either lean or fall over, sprouting new roots where the leaning branches touch the ground. Sometimes the old portion of the plant will die and the branch with newly sprouted roots will thrive, thus the same plant takes up a new spot. Over time, if the plant continues to flop over and sprout new roots, it can move quite some distance. My friend Lorin Gill recalls a particular ma'o hau hele traveling more than 20 feet in about 15 years! In 1988, Hawaii changed the state flower from the native red hibiscus (Hibiscus kokio) to this one.
It should be made clear that this is the only species of yellow hibiscus that can be called our state flower. I'm tired of seeing the "Hula Girl" hybrid hibiscus in magazines with the caption reading "Hawaii's state flower," giving people a false impression of what is native.
co-owns Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian plant nursery, with Matt Schirman. Contact him at 259-6580 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org