Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Yellow Hibiscus

True or false?

The state flower of Hawaii is a yellow hibiscus.

True, but a trick question. It’s not just ANY garden variety yellow hibiscus in Hawaii. Like other Hawaiian cultural symbols in this A-Z series, there’s more to the story.

Source of original photo: Forest and Kim Starr. Creative commons licensed.
Image has been altered, with text added. 
Growing up, I thought the state flower was any hibiscus, especially the red hibiscus, which grows practically on every street in Hawaii. I was not the only one. In 1988, the state legislature made their selection of state flower very clear: Hibiscus brackenridgei, Hawaiian name ma’o hau hele, roughly pronounced like “mah oh how hell ey”.  Still yet, even this week, I have visited other websites which simply state that the yellow hibiscus is the state flower. It’s just not completely true.

Hawaii’s state flower is a very special native hibiscus with vivid yellow flowers that only blooms once or maybe twice a year, usually in the winter and/or spring. It’s endangered too, but is becoming cultivated in local gardens, although it is susceptible to white flies, Chinese rose beetles and excess moisture.  I won’t try growing them where I live in Haiku, where plants need to have a wet suit, snorkel and mask to thrive! If you do want to grow them, this is a helpful link on cultivating and propagating the native yellow species.

This native yellow hibiscus is not the only indigenous hibiscus either, as I have seen exquisite white native flowers at Fleming Arboretum.

According to Shannon Wianecki, a knowledgeable free lance writer and conservation volunteer, the state flower is:

easy to grow at home (minus the bugs) but it's endangered in the wild, where very few individual plants remain. Feral ungulates such as deer and goats like to nibble it to the ground. It thrives in full sun, in the hot dryland forest areas. It's endemic, which means it evolved here in Hawaii and exists nowhere else on earth.”

Will the real state flower of Hawaii please stand up?
Source: Forest and Kim Starr. Photo is creative commons licensed.
Native yellow hibiscus is not exactly a needle in a haystack, but it's hard to find in the wild. The Native Hawaiian Plant Society’s April service project was a trip to a special “exclosure” of H. breckenridgei in the wild. I haven’t heard back from them yet, but imagine a fenced in area of blooming yellow hibiscus with hungry deer and goats pacing outside looking for a way in. If NHPS goes again next April, I’m putting it on my calendar.

The name of the native yellow hibiscus is also intriguing: ma’o hau hele which refers to how the plants “travel” to reproduce.

The native Hawaiians, according to Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, made a blue-gray dye from the flowers, to color their tapa bark cloth (what ancient Hawaiians wore in the days before the “grass skirt”).  The state flower’s bark could also be made into cordage or rope which was extremely useful at a time when nails and hammers didn’t exist. The native yellow hibiscus is blooming now at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, though I had to laugh at  MNBG’s sense of humor, and I found out the flowers do not open up all day. 

What’s important about native or indigenous Hawaiian plants is that they are part of the ecosystem on the islands. Many native plants are rare or endangered, by habitat loss or other introduced species. They have important cultural traditions associated with them and when they disappear, certain genetic and cultural information is lost too. 

Update 6/3/13: Irene of the Native Hawaiian Plant Society provided a useful tip to figure out whether a yellow hibiscus is native or not. 

"Non-native yellow have oblong leaves, natives the maple-shaped leaves. BTW - Costco has planted a bunch of them around the gas station and some of them were flowering [in May]."

In writing this post, I’d like to highlight some of the organizations that promote the preservation and cultivation of native species. For the most part, they are off the beaten track for tourists, but if you’re reading this post and eventually come to Maui, please consider a volunteer stint or field trip with one of these places:

If you are elsewhere in Hawaii (not just Maui), check out:

Just found these photos of the native yellow hibiscus on the Facebook page of Flyin Hawaiian Zipline,
which is involved in restoration efforts on zipline land. These are all fairly young hibiscus plants.
I love that these photos show the leaves and habitat of the native hibiscus.
I've collaged some of their FB photos together. Mahalo for their conservation efforts!

Special mahalos (thank you’s) to the sources involved in researching this post:

Surprisingly I thought this would be the easiest A-Z post to do, and it turned into one of the more complex. Yellow hibiscus… not as simple as it looked. 

Aloha and mahalo (thank you) for reading!

If you are commenting from the 
A to Z challenge, please include a link. 
I'm doing my best to keep up with commenting, but do sometimes get behind. Mahalo for understanding!


  1. Just discovering your blog for the first time as I make my
    way through the A-Z Challenge. Please
    check us out and sign up to follow if you like what you see. Juliet atCity
    Muse Country Muse

  2. What a beautiful precious flower it's too bad it is so rare. I've found that the posts I thought would be easy have been difficult and harder posts have been easier. One more to go and we've made it.

  3. I like the hibiscus in theory. I like it even more in my tea.

  4. That's a special variety of red hibiscus that has smaller flowers and even the leaves are red. Leaves and flowers and stems can be used in tea. I make it sometimes.

  5. It's a striking flower. Hope to see it in person some time! Jotting your website for my reference:

  6. "Just discovering your blog for the first time as I make my way through the A-Z Challenge. Please check us out and sign up to follow if you like what you see. Juliet atCity Muse Country Muse on Y is for Yellow Hibiscus" Copied and pasted this from my blogger comments since it didn't show up on disqus (probably from a mobile device?)


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