When early Polynesians sailed their great double-hulled canoes to the pristine sands of Hawai'i, they brought with them a way of life that had sustained them in the ‘aina they left behind. The plants and animals they had chosen for the journey provided them with food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and other basic necessities. However, the strange new landscape offered its own unique bounty of flora and fauna never before seen by human eyes. The resourceful settlers found some of these forms of life particularly useful; thus, the first Hawaiians became part of a native ecosystem, joining a web of life like no other place on Earth, isolated in the middle of the Pacific.
Unlike nettles elsewhere, the endemic Mamaki (Pipturus albidus) is a nettle without prickles. It evolved over thousands of years until it no longer needed to expend energy creating a defense against the grazing animals that later impacted the landscape along with the humans who brought them. The healing properties of nettles are well known in many cultures across the globe, and some Hawaiian uses for mamaki are similar to those found elsewhere.
The mamaki in my backyard has perfect, large, shiny but hairy leaves, but since I live in town at 400 feet elevation there’s little chance that Kamehameha butterfly larvae will ever visit. However, just in case they ever do decide to drop in, I’m happy to say I’m ready for them.
Traditional Hawaiian Uses
Fiber: Inner layer of bark yields fiber for kapa (barkcloth)
Medicine: Leaves made into tea, tonic. Taken to reduce high blood pressure and high cholestrerol.
Mamaki grows on all islands except Ni'ihau and Kaho'olawe, usually on the edges of the understory of mesic and rain forests, at altitudes between 1500 to 4000 feet, sometimes to 6000 feet.
Primary food source for some native insects, including the larvae of the endemic Hawaiian butterfly, pulelehua or Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea)
Best by seed – after separated from the berry they sprout easily and usually stronger plants result. Also can propagate from cuttings. For propagation tips, click here.
Can be shaped into a tree to 10’ in wet conditions; grows as a spreading, low bush in dry conditions. Not aggressive and usually takes well to pruning if no more than one-third is removed. White mulberry-like fruit attractive to birds, which spread the seeds. Plant in nutrient- rich, well-draining soil in semi-shaded to shaded location.
Common Hawaiian Trees, Kaulunani Friends of the Urban Forest
Growing Hawai'i's Native Plants, Kerin Lilleeng-Rosenberger
Growing Native Hawaiian Plants, Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst
In the Gardens of Hawaii, Marie Neal
Plants in Hawaiian Medicine, Beatrice Krauss