This article by Jodie Rosam was featured in The Kaʻū Calendar News Briefs on August 22nd, 2021.

(Pahala, Hawaiʻi) — Welcome to Lāʻau Letters: Native Plants of Kaʻū. Read about Kaʻū’s native plants and their moʻolelo (stories), uses, preferred habitats, and opportunities to adopt them for stewardship. This column seeks to encourage making new plant friends and to reunite with others.

ʻOhe Makai (Polyscias sandwicensis)

Description: ʻOhe makai is a member of the Araliaceae family, much like its cousin ʻōlapa from Volcano. Similar to wiliwili, ʻohe makai is drought-deciduous, which means that it can lose its leaves during the dry season (summer) to conserve energy. When ʻohe makai does have leaves, they are thick, glossy, and a gorgeous bright green color. This tree can reach heights of 50’ and an impressive spread of 60’, and as these trees age, they take on a unique shape of their own. Flowers develop in the fall and winter months (though they are not showy and easy to miss), but once pollinated, fruits develop in shades of deep purple and magenta.

Uses: ʻOhe makai historically was also known as kukuluaeʻo, giving reference to the aeʻo, or Hawaiian black-necked stilt, as the wood of the ʻohe was used to make stilts to walk around on! ʻOhe makai is also medicinal, commonly used to treat babies. The fruits were eaten by the mother and passed on to the baby through the breast milk to treat pāʻaoʻao (a common ailment in babies) and ʻea (thrush). The wood is soft and pale, and not typically used today.

Habitat: ʻOhe makai grow from about 100’ to 1600’ elevation, and can be found on the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lanaʻi, Oahu, and Niʻihau. This dry forest species is unfortunately becoming increasingly rare due to habitat loss and wildfires. Here in Kaʻū, ʻohe makai still remain scattered throughout the dry forests in elevations between 400-700’.

Growing and Purchasing: ʻOhe makai seeds must be processed to remove the fleshy pulp, and germination success decreases rapidly over time, so please sow those seeds soon after you collect them! Soak seeds in water overnight and plant in a well-drained medium such as a perlite-vermiculite mix. This species is extremely drought tolerant and does not like to get her feet wet, so plant in a well-drained area where your ʻohe can receive full sun. This is a great tree to plant in a xeric landscape, though is not the best choice for a shade tree, considering the leaves drop in the summer months. Established seedlings may be available to purchase at Aileen’s Nursery or Future Forests.

Mahalo to Jodie Rosam with Pūlama Mau Environmental Consulting (and part-time HWF team member) and Julia Neal with The Kaʻū Calendar for allowing us to share this story!

Photos of the contributors, Jodie (left) and Joan (right) –>