Hawaii’s Official State Flower
Scientific Name: Hibiscus brackenridgei subsp. molokaiana
Endemic: All HI except Molokai and O’ahu
Description: A shrub (up to 10 ft.) with maple like leaves and bright yellow hibiscus flowers. This plant varies in appearance between islands but generally falls into three subspecies: H.brackenridgei subsp. brackenridgei of Maui, Molokai, Lana’i, and Hawai’i and H. brackenridgei subsp. mokuleianus of O’ahu and Kaua’I and this one, H. brackenridgei subsp. molokaiana of Molokai and O’ahu. The most visible difference between the three subspecies is in the leaves and stems. Subspecies mokuleianus has leaves with more serrated margins and pink veins; there are also tiny spines on the branches. Meanwhile, subspecies brackenridgei has leaves with more rounded margins, yellow veins and lacks the tiny spines on the branches. This particular subspecies came from Makua Valley on O’ahu where it was only recently discovered and posses characteristics of both subspecies making it very appealing. Its leaves resemble those of the subspecies brackenridgei but with pink veins like subspecies mokuleianus and although it is from O’ahu, it lacks the branch thorns of subsp. mokuleianus which is a good thing cause those little pricks can hurt.
Distribution: This is an endemic species found only in Hawai’i, it is also an endangered species with very few populations left in the wild. They are usually found in the dry to mesic forests of all the main islands except Ni’ihau (it was once reportedly collected from Kaho’olawe but now it no longer exists there).
Landscape Uses and Care: This plant does well in full sun to partial shade and needs very little water to thrive although daily watering is o.k. It is a fast grower and will flower twice a year. Each flowering period lasts up to two months with blooms occuring daily on a flowering stalk that rises up above the rest of the plant. Unlike most hibiscuses, this plant doesn’t perform well as a hedge. Instead it looks best as a specimen plant. Rose beetles may attack the leaves of Ma’ohaohele at night and leave them looking like Swiss cheese. To prevent this, planting it near a light source at night should help. It seems that plants which are normally affected by rose beetles aren’t affected as much when they are either planted near landscape lighting or under a bright streetlamp or porch light. Leave the lights on from dusk until at least 8 or 9 at night and that should keep those nasty munchers away. Occasionally, whiteflies may be found under the leaves, any store bought pesticide should remedy that problem.
Additional Info: The name of this plant- ma’o hau hele literally means the “traveling green hau”. It is probable that it got this name because after the plant gets to be about 3-5 years old it will become top heavy and either lean over or fall over and sprout new roots where the leaning branches touch the ground. Sometimes the old portion of the plant will die and the newly sprouted roots from the leaning branches will make the same plant thrive in a new spot a few feet over from its original location. Over time if the plant continues to flop over and sprout new roots it can move quite some distance. A friend of mine Lorin Gill recalls a particular ma’o hau hele traveling over 20 ft in about 15 years! In 1988 the State of Hawai’i 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, all other yellow hibiscus are not.Mao hau hele