Hau hele ‘ula is an absolutely amazing native member of the Malvaceae (Hibiscus) family most recognized for its very large red flowers! This plant is very rare in the wild with populations reduced to only a few individuals on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Their natural range is from 1,000’ to 3,000’ elevation in tropical dryland forests with less than 50” of rain per year. Mature trees can reach heights of up to 50’ with spreads of up to 20’. These magnificent trees exhibit dark green, multi-lobed leaves, with red veins and can be anywhere from 3-8 inches in length. The showy red flowers typically bloom in spring, summer, or early fall, but can be sporadic throughout the year. Although there is no fragrance, the large flowers are full of sweet nectar which was once a valuable food source for the honeycreepers of Hawai‘i. Once pollinated, the fruit develop and brown, fuzzy seeds are produced.
Although rare in the wild, hau hele ‘ula grow readily under cultivation and can be seen in many gardens and nurseries. They prefer full to partial sun, with well-draining soils. Once established, hau hele ‘ula make for a great screening or specimen plant. Very drought tolerant after their first year, these plants can go a very long time without water and will occasionally drop their leaves in order to conserve energy until more favorable conditions return.
This tree was once an abundant species throughout our dry forests, and was used for a variety of applications by the early Hawaiians. The flower petals were used to make pink and lavender dyes, and the sap from the bark could also be used to create a dark red dye for staining fish nets. This red dye gave the nets both a waterproof coating and made the nets less visible to the fish they were trying to catch. It is also noted that the bark of the hau hele ‘ula was used for treating thrush and of course, the flowers were used to make incredible lei!
- Lilleeng-Rosenberger, Kerin E. Growing Hawai‘i’s native plants: a simple step-by-step approach for every species. Honolulu, Hawai‘i: Mutual Pub., 2005.