Quick! Name the state flower.
If you’re like most folks in Hawaii, you’re saying, “hibiscus.”
That’s easy. But what kind of hibiscus?
Some of you are saying, “red,” some are saying, “white.” And some of you are saying, “yellow.”
If you said red, you’re partly right. The red hibiscus used to be the state flower.
Heidi Bornhorst, a certified arborist, horticulturist and landscape consultant, explained.
“In 1988 the legislature decided to name a new state flower,” she said. “It had been the red hibiscus. They came to us at Foster Botanical Garden. I said they should pick the native white fragrant hibiscus. Instead they picked ‘Ma’o hau hele.’”
That would be the yellow hibiscus. Not the plentiful, beautiful varieties of yellow you see in people’s gardens, but the native variety that is extremely hard to find. I know. I looked.
When I was on the hunt for the native yellow hibiscus I found a couple of plants at Lyon Arboretum, but that was it, until I spoke with a horticulturist at Foster Botanical Garden, the very nice Joshlyn Sand.
Sand told me about a recent large planting of Ma’o hau hele at the Koko Crater Botanical Garden.
It turns out this is a very big deal. Ma’o hau hele, or Hibiscus Brackenridge, is a federally listed endangered species. The subspecies now blooming in Koko Crater is found only on Oahu.
The conservation project to preserve and propagate Ma’o hau hele is a partnership between the Honolulu Botanical Gardens and the Oahu Army Natural Resources Program. They enlisted the help of Niu Valley Middle school students and planted more than 300 Ma’o hau hele in the Hawaiian Garden at Koko Crater.
My husband, Ward, and I made the trek. When we found them about a mile from the start of the trail, they were a spectacular sight—row after row of bright yellow flowers reaching up and turning their faces to the sun. Finally!
Bornhorst describes them as, “ephemeral, super fragile. It’s easy to grow, but it’s endangered because of its habitat in the wild. It’s from dryland areas, which tend to burn. The legislature picked it because there’s a species of it on all the islands, but they are rare. And the Oahu one is especially endangered."
It’s also a pest magnet, and “people think it’s ugly.”
Bornhorst says, in a garden they will last around three years.
“The name, Ma’o hau hele, refers to the way the plant will get old, fall over, and a branch will regrow, or hele on down the mountain.”
Well, it’s true they aren’t the prettiest hibiscus. But to see so many of them in one place—that was inspiring.
Bornhorst thinks so, too.
“Every school should have them,” she said. “They’re easy to propagate. Maybe we should work on that.”
Maybe we should.
And now if someone asks you what the Hawaii state flower is, you can tell them. It’s Ma’o hau hele, a living part of our history.
And if we don’t pay attention, it'll be gone forever.