Ma‘o hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei) – The first endangered Hawaiian plant for sale

Early Saturday morning, 1998, and I was volunteering for the Harold Lyon Arboretum Plant Sale at the Neal Blaisdell Center. I remember looking outside the glass entrance doors and seeing a long line of people waiting for the sale to begin and the doors to open; there must have been at least a hundred people waiting. Just inside the doors were the Arboretum tables. And, on one of the tables was a cluster of ma‘o hau hele that Liz Huppman had propagated. Both she and I knew this was a big deal – these were the first endangered Hawaiian plants to ever be offered for legal sale. How appropriate that the species Liz had chosen was Hawai‘i’s State flower. What I think neither of us was prepared for was the response when those doors opened. The incoming crowd immediately swarmed around the ma‘o hau hele, quickly snatching them up and placing them into their cardboard carrying boxes. The plants were gone in less than five minutes! It reminded me at the time of the videos you see on TV of crazed parents before Christmas grabbing the must-have-this-year toy for their son or daughter.

Since that day, ma‘o hau hele have become commonplace at plant sales and Home & Garden stores along with about 60 other endangered Hawaiian native plants. The plant’s not as popular as it was on that fateful day, most likely because people now know that it only produces its big bright yellow flowers once a year and that Chinese rose beetles like to munch on its leaves. Still, whenever I talk with someone about the 300-or-so endangered Hawaiian plants that are still not commercially available, I’m reminded of that day and know the reason is not that people would not buy them.

Habitat & Appearance: Ma‘o hau hele inhabits the dry forest and shrublands of all the main islands except for Ni‘ihau and Kaho‘olawe (where it was reported to grow in the past). The species varies in stature, leaf shape and pubescence (hairiness), details of flower color, and the abundance of prickles on its stems and fruits. Some varieties, such as the one found in the north windward Wai‘anae Mountains, are quite tall (15 feet) while others, such as those in Mākua Valley, mature as average size shrubs. The leaves of several varieties are quite fuzzy, unlike most other native Hibiscus species. The flowers normally only last 1-2 days but the plant produces a lot, so, when in flower, the plant is very pretty.

(Top to Bottom) Ripe ma‘o hau hele fruit with seeds (photograph courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr ©). Ma‘o hau hele seedling. Flower of Mākua, O‘ahu variety. Adult plant at Leeward Community College.

Ma‘o hau hele in Hawaiian Culture: According to Pukui & Elbert (1986), the name translates into “green traveling hau.” This never made much sense to me until, on a trip to Kaua‘i, Rick Barbosa provided me an explanation. Ma‘o hau hele are related to hau but are short-lived plants. When they die their branches often spread apart and fall to the ground like the petals of aging rose. Occasionally, one of these old branches will root and grow into a new plant. This plant may then die, its branches again spreading apart, rooting, and repeating the rebirth. Such a phenomenon over time could be seen as a plant that moves or travels across the ground. A second interpretation of the name recognizes that both ma‘o, our native cotton, and ma‘o hau hele have large bright yellow flowers. And, both hau and ma‘o hau hele have a stringy bark that, in ancient times, Hawaiians made into cord. Hele can be translated as “to go” but it can also mean “similar.” Therefore, as an alternative to the green traveling hau, perhaps, the name means; the plant that has a yellow flower similar to ma‘o and bark similar to hau. A friend of mine and expert kapa-maker, Dalani Tanahy, collects ma‘o hau hele flowers to make a dye for her kapa. I don’t know if this is only a modern practice but I suspect not.

Collecting Seeds: Collect the fruits when they are brown and dry, usually in the late winter and spring. Wearing gloves while collecting and handling the fruits is a good idea to avoid the irritating prickles. Most of the seeds should fall out of the multi-chambered fruit with a little shaking. The seeds remain viable in the refrigerator for several years.

Growing from Seed: After sterilizing with 10% bleach (for 15 minutes), soak the seeds one or two days in a shallow pan of tapwater, then, carefully scarify them with a nailclipper. Soak the seeds one more day and sow. Using either Method One or Two, the seeds begin germinating in 2-3 days and continue for a week or so. Seedlings grow quickly, develop a fat trunk, and are 8 inches or more in height in a few months. You can plant them into the garden anytime after this with good success. In the nursery, spider mites and mealybugs are sometimes a problem; I eliminate both with 2-3 sprays of horticultural oil. If you have snails or slugs in your nursery, watch out because they may eat or girdle the seedlings.

Growing from Cuttings: You can also propagate ma‘o hau hele from cuttings using either Method One or Two. The cuttings take 1-3 weeks to begin rooting and another month or so until they’re ready to remove from the container or mist chamber and assume normal plant status in the nursery.

Growth in the Garden: It’s been my experience that ma‘o hau hele grow quickly in the garden but do not live long. Within 1-2 years, depending upon the variety you have, you will have a large shrub or small tree. Normally, flowering and fruiting begins the second year in the ground. Unfortunately, this hibiscus species only flowers once each year, usually in the winter and/or spring. Getting your ma‘o hau hele to survive five or more years is an accomplishment; mine often die their third or fourth year.

Diseases & Pests: Chinese rose beetles love ma‘o hau hele. And, while I’ve never seen the beetles kill a plant, they do make it unsightly with all the hole-ridden leaves. Refer to Enemies in the Garden for ways to battle the beetles. Mealybugs often attack young plants and the stem-tips and flower buds of older plants. A few treatments with horticultural oil are the safest way to eliminate these infestations. As mentioned above, ma‘o hau hele don’t seem to live very long, particularly in the garden. I’ve seen unnatural deaths where the roots and main stem near the ground have turned spongy and putrid. All the leaves fall off and the plant is dead within a few weeks. I suspect the killer is a fungus present but not ubiquitous in the soil. Given their short lifespan, I encourage you to insure your plant as early as possible by either collecting seed or propagating a second or third plant from cuttings. Otherwise, you might find yourself going to the garden shop or asking a friend for a favor every couple of years in order to keep our State flower in your garden.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū