Sunday, November 29, 2015         


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Hawaiians' medicinal plant thrives in hostile habitats

By Duane Choy


One of my all-time favorite excursions when I lived on the island of Hawaii was four-wheeling down an old Jeep road in Keopuka to go snorkeling and exploring at the Captain Cook monument fronting Kealakekua Bay.

Rambling down this route, you're engulfed by volcanic terrain. Even with the raised clearance on my vehicle, I had to be super attentive to the jagged pits and craters of Pele's unforgiving asphalt. Still, my concentration was routinely distracted by a solitary, petite oasis of green, surrounded by moonscape. I was mesmerized by the allure and survival tenacity of this plant.

Later, I learned its name was maiapilo.

Maiapilo is also known as pua pilo, pilo, puapili and Hawaiian caper. It's a relative of the caper bush of the Mediterranean region, with piquant flower buds that are pickled for eating. It is endemic to Hawaii and listed as a "vulnerable" species, which indicates it's likely to become "endangered" in the near future.

Its habitat ranges from dispersed sites on basalt, coral or rocky earth near coastal strands to marginally inland. It grows on all our major Hawaiian islands and on Hermes, Pearl and Midway Atoll, and Laysan.

An intrinsic element of the habitat management plan for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is the sowing and cultivation of maiapilo.

Maiapilo is a low shrub with stems that can sprawl out to 16 feet. The leaves are oblong and fleshy. The 2- to 4-inch flowers are the focus of attraction. An explosion of white stamens erupts from four petals. The ultra-fragrant, white blossoms bloom after sunset and in daylight fade to pallid pink. The illumination of a full moon lends an iridescence to the flowers.

Spring and summer are the traditional flowering months. Native moths are the likely pollinators. Maiapilo fruit mimics a miniature cucumber. When ripe, the foul-smelling, bright-orange pulp is dotted with little brown seeds.

During its larval stage, the cabbage white butterfly resides on maiapilo. The flower's nectar is also an integral food source for our rare native Blackburn's sphinx moth, which at one point was thought to be extinct in Hawaii.

The milky sap of maiapilo was used by early Hawaiians to medicate hehe (boils, running sores, ulcers). The entire plant was also pounded and used to heal broken bones.

It's a superlative for the coastal or xeriscape landscape. Maiapilo's primeval beauty is intensified within a native lava garden, either as a pristine specimen plant or unique ground cover.

Seeing maiapilo that first time, thriving in such a hostile site, converted me immediately to its charm and courageous perseverance. Maiapilo is a Hawaiian botanical symbol of endurance.

Duane Choy is a native Hawaiian plant specialist. Email him at

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