Ko‘oloa ‘ula (Abutilon menziesii) – The power of the Press

Ko‘oloa ‘ula. Admittedly, this name has always been a tongue-twister for me. But, if you ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you my linguistic skills, even with English, rate on the negative side of the scale. Still, I will NEVER call this plant the “red ‘ilima.” It’s not that I’m opposed to new Hawaiian plant names, particularly, when we no longer know the ancient Hawaiian name. Such is the case for Achyranthes splendens var. rotundata, now often called the ‘Ewa hinahina. I can also support the addition of a Hawaiian adjective when it provides valuable description such as the naio variety often called naio papa, a prostrate form growing on the southern shores of the Big Island. But, I will not support the adoption of new hapa haole names born of ignorance and laziness.

This all started when the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation began drawing up plans for the North-South road in Kapolei. They discovered their plans placed the road (and the surrounding development) right through one of only two known populations of the endangered ko‘oloa ‘ula found on O‘ahu. (The other population is in Lualualei.) This is when the Press got involved and started reporting on the story. For reasons I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, the Press started calling the plant the red ‘ilima instead of its proper Hawaiian name. The new bastardized name stuck and if you ask most people that live in Kapolei if they know about ko‘oloa ‘ula you just get blank stares. On the other hand, if you mention the red ‘ilima, they often can tell you the entire road versus plant story. Anyway, as is nearly always the case in our society, the DOT decided it was cheaper to move the plants than to reroute the road. Fortunately, unlike the sad story of the ‘Ewa Plains ‘akoko, they agreed to a large cash settlement (about $3 million) to mitigate the destruction of the ko‘oloa ‘ula population. This money went to collect seed and cuttings from each of the 200-plus plants prior to the road construction. The money also paid for a new nursery on the North Shore to propagate these collections. And, a new permanent staff position within the Department of Forestry and Wildlife to ensure the survival of the new plants into the future. Greg Mansker was the guy who got the job and he’s been great. Not only has Greg established new populations of the Kapolei ko‘oloa ‘ula at several locations on O‘ahu (Check one of these out inside Koko Crater Botanical Garden.), but he’s been able to preserve the morphological and genetic diversity of the original population. In addition, Greg has helped with other important native plant preservation and restoration projects on O‘ahu and the other islands. So, if you happen to see Greg at one of his sites, be sure to thank him for all his great work. But, whatever you say, don’t ask him how things are going with the red ‘ilima!

Habitat & Appearance: Ko‘oloa ‘ula is endemic to O‘ahu, Maui, Lāna‘i and Hawai‘i. It grows in dry open shrubland and forest. Ko‘oloa ‘ula is a shrub 3-6 feet tall at maturity. During the hot dry summer it will lose and reduce the size of its fuzzy heart-shaped leaves. Like many Malvaceae, populations (and, sometimes, individuals within a population) of ko‘oloa ‘ula vary in both leaf shape and flower color. Some plants have perfectly heart-shaped leaves while others have a greatly extended leaf tip. Flowers can be pink, various shades of red, and even yellow; I once saw a flower that was nearly white with red edging around each petal. Wild plants produce many flowers several times throughout the year making them a stunning sight when in full bloom.

(Top to Bottom) Even professionals make mistakes. Ko‘oloa ‘ula flower variations and ripe fruits (photographs courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr ©). Ko‘oloa ‘ula seedlings.

Ko‘oloa ‘ula in Hawaiian Culture: I’ve been unable to find any records of pre-contact Hawaiians using ko‘oloa ‘ula. However, I suspect they used it for lei, and, perhaps for medicine (similar to the use of ‘ilima) or cordage (similar to the use of koki‘o and hau).

Collecting Seeds: Collect mature fruits when they are completely dry and light brown. Each fruit will usually hold 1-3 kidney-shaped seeds in each chamber of the fruit. I normally shake these out or use a pair of forceps. Seed-borers and fungi sometime destroy the seeds so keep only seeds without obvious holes that do not collapse from the pressure between your fingers.

Growing from Seed: Following hot water scarification, ko‘oloa ‘ula seeds begin sprouting in about a week using Method Two. Seeds will continue to germinate for another month or so. Seedlings are susceptible to damping-off and rot if they are watered too frequently. Spider mites can also be a problem. See Enemies in the Garden for treatments. Plant out your ko‘oloa ‘ula when they are 8-12 inches tall.

Growing from Cuttings: Growing ko‘oloa ‘ula from cuttings is smart when you want a hedge or grouping of them to all flower at the same time with the same flower color. Using either Method One or Two, the cuttings will root in 2-4 months.

Growth in the Garden: Ko‘oloa ‘ula grow quickly, easily maturing in a year with a little care. Remember this is a dry shrubland/forest species so do not overwater. In fact, watering them at all after 1-2 months in the garden normally isn’t necessary. While I normally don’t, you can lightly and gradually prune your ko‘oloa ‘ula if you wish to shape the shrub. I haven’t been growing ko‘oloa ‘ula for long (my oldest plant is only six years old but it’s still very healthy), so, I suspect this plant has a moderate lifespan of ten to twenty years.

Diseases & Pests: While seldom fatal to the plant, Chinese rose beetles eating the leaves and making the shrub unsightly is often the reason people get rid of their ko‘oloa ‘ula. Spider mites and mealybugs can also be a problem. Refer to Enemies in the Garden for ways to combat these pests. Scot Nelson (UH Cooperative Extension Service) has noted a rust on ko‘oloa ‘ula caused by the fungus, Puccinia heterospora. Please refer to this link (http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/PD-31.pdf) for more information.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū