Amy Greenwell Garden abounds with native and endemic (found only in the Hawaiian Islands) plants, and one of our best endemics for attracting butterflies is māmaki. The scientific name is Pipturus albidis, where “albidis” is Latin for “white”, probably referring to the plant’s small, white edible fruit and tiny greenish-white flowers.
Māmaki is a shrub or small tree, and makes good understory or landscaping material, although it does not like to be in hot or dry conditions. Māmaki occurs naturally on all the main Hawaiian Islands except for Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe, which not-so-coincidentally is also the historical range for one of our two endemic Hawaiian butterfly species, the Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameanmea). Adult Kamehameha butterflies drink the sap and nectar from naio, koa, and other forest trees, but the young caterpillars commonly feed on māmaki leaves. The Kamehameha butterfly was adopted as the Hawai’i State Insect in 2009. The Pulelehua (Hawaiian for “butterfly”) Project of UH Manoa reports that these butterflies appear to be declining and asks for the public’s help in reporting sightings of them. More information can be found at https://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu and at www.nativeplants.hawaii.edu.
The Friends of Amy B. H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden are planning to increase the amount of māmaki within the Garden boundary, partly because the Friends are planning to eventually install a butterfly house that will need host plants for butterflies (we love butterflies!). We are working with NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) for assistance in creating more cover of certain native plants in the Garden, including māmaki. Māmaki is also listed on the Friends’ draft Nursery Plant List, a list of plants that we plan to grow and eventually make available for public sale. Māmaki leaves are used for medicinal tea and the fruit and seeds have traditional medicinal uses. The inner bark of māmaki can be made into kapa, although it isn’t readily washable like kapa wauke is. Māmaki sap mixed with water can be used to keep kapa wauke moist while it is being prepared.
One “fly in the ointment” that has surfaced for māmaki is the pesky Ramie moth (Arcte coerula) which originally hails from Southeast Asia but has become established outside of its natural range on Maui and the Big Island. The Ramie moth’s caterpillars are black and sometimes yellow with orange-red spots and white hairs. Unfortunately, these moth caterpillars are competing with our endemic Kamehameha butterfly caterpillars for the same host plant leaves of māmaki as well as damaging other endemic Hawaiian plants in the nettle plant family (Urticaceae). The State Department of Agriculture urges people to NOT move māmaki plants or unwashed māmaki leaves between areas on the Big Island or to other islands. If you think you see some of the Ramie moths or caterpillars, report them to 643pest.org or call (808) 643-PEST (https://www.westhawaiitoday.com/2021/03/08/hawaii-news/mamaki-under-attack-ramie-moth-confirmed-on-big-island/).
Words by Marie Morin