Cuscuta sandwichiana

leaf Main Plant Information





Hawaiian Names with Diacritics

  • Kaunaʻoa
  • Kaunaʻoa kahakai
  • Kaunaʻoa lei
  • Kaunoʻa
  • Pōlolo

Hawaiian Names

  • Kaunaoa
  • Kaunaoa kahakai
  • Kaunaoa lei
  • Kaunoa
  • Pololo

Common Names

  • Dodder
  • Hawaiian dodder
  • Hawaiʻi dodder

leaf Plant Characteristics

Distribution Status


Endangered Species Status

No Status

Plant Form / Growth Habit

  • Sprawling Shrub
  • Vine/Liana

Mature Size, Height (in feet)

  • Shrub, Dwarf, Less than 2

Mature Size, Width

On flat surfaces, not much more than a few inches high and perhaps 10+ feet in width. The width and height, however, are dependent upon the surrounding plants.

Life Span

No data available.

Landscape Uses

  • Container
  • Trellis or Fence Climber

Additional Landscape Use Information

Kaunaʻoa kahakai is not be suitable for the average commercial landscape.

They may have use in a native Hawaiian garden or grown for lei. Plants can be grown in a container with a host plant. The bright yellow to yellow-orange colored stems certainly command attention.

NOTE: Please keep in mind that kaunaʻoa kahakai is a parasitic plant and can greatly harm or kill their host plants. Do not plant near your valuable plants.

Source of Fragrance

  • No Fragrance

Plant Produces Flowers


leaf Flower Characteristics

Flower Type

Not Showy

Flower Colors

  • White

Additional Flower Color Information


Blooming Period

  • Sporadic

Additional Blooming Period and Fruiting Information

The fruits are small, less than pea-sized, and are whitish with tiny black seeds.

leaf Leaf Characteristics

Plant texture

  • Fine

Additional Plant Texture Information

These parisitic plants appear leafless with small scale-like leaves.

A similar looking species is the indigenous kaunaʻoa pehu (Cassytha filiformis). It is an unrelated plant in the Laurel family (Lauraceae) with the same parasitic nature. Kaunaʻoa pehu, literally "swollen kaunaʻoa," can be distinguished by it larger, coarser yellowish-green stems.

So size-wise, if kaunaʻoa pehu is the spaghetti, than kaunaʻoa kahakai would be the capelli d'angelo or angel-hair pasta.

leaf Pests and Diseases

Additional Pest & Disease Information


Can transmit viruses to host plant. [10]

leaf Growth Requirements


Kaunaʻoa kahakai are provided sustenance from their host plants by means of haustoria, specialized roots for extracting the nutrients. It would appear, then, that additional fertilizers would not be required. Use fertilizer on host plant.

Pruning Information

Trim or break off unwanted growth. [10]

Water Requirements

  • Dry

Additional Water Information

Keep moist until plant establishes itself onto its host. Thereafter, watering is rarely needed.

Soil must be well drained


Light Conditions

  • Full sun


  • Drought
  • Wind
  • Salt Spray
  • Heat


  • Sand
  • Cinder
  • Coral


 (See Special Growing Needs below)

Special Growing Needs

Kaunaʻoa do not have true roots and so require a host plant(s) to survive. Stems can be placed over a host plant and will parisitize the plant. They do not appear to be choosey about their hosts, but prefer shrubs and trees with bushy growth such as noni. [10]

leaf Environmental Information

Natural Range

  • Niʻihau
  • Kauaʻi
  • Oʻahu
  • Molokaʻi
  • Lānaʻi
  • Maui
  • Hawaiʻi

Natural Zones (Elevation in feet, Rainfall in inches)

  • Less than 150, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 150 to 1000, 0 to 50 (Dry)


  • Parasitic
  • Terrestrial

Additional Habitat Information

Kaunaʻoa kahakai is found in coastal areas, often sandy soil, from sea level to about 985 feet. It is more common on the older islands. [4]

This fascinating plant is not rare or even uncommon, but seems to be sporadic throughout its range.

leaf Special Features and Information

General Information

Cuscuta (Dodder) is a genus of about 100-170 species of yellow, orange or red (rarely green) parasitic plants. Formerly treated as the only genus in the family Cuscutaceae, recent genetic research by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group has shown that it is correctly placed in the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae. The genus is found throughout the temperate to tropical regions of the world, with the greatest species diversity in subtropical and tropical regions. [5]

Cuscuta sandwichiana is the only native member in the genus that is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

There is also a smaller, paler non-native species, the Western field dodder (Cuscuta campestris), that is sparingly naturalized on Oʻahu, West Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island. It is less common than Cuscuta sandwichiana.


The generic name Cuscuta is derived from the Arabic kuskut, meaning a tangled twist of hair, in reference to the habit of this plant.

The specific epithet sandwichiana refers to the "Sandwich Islands," as the Hawaiian Islands were once called, and named by James Cook on one of his voyages in the 1770s. James Cook named the islands after John Montagu (The fourth Earl of Sandwich) for supporting Cook's voyages.

The Hawaiian name Kaunaʻoa kahakai means "kaunaʻoa by the seashore." An appropriate name since they can be seen growing in beach sands parisitizing other plants, such as the indigenous grass ʻakiʻaki (Sporobolus virginicus), pāʻūohiʻiaka, ʻilima, pōhuehue and, pardon the pun, a "host" of others.

Background Information

These parasitic plants are not pickey about their hosts and have been recorded on a number of introduced and native plants.

The Territorial Legislature in 1923 designated lei kaunaʻoa to represent the island of Lānaʻi but is now rare on this island. [7]

Some have considered this endemic species to be "declared noxious" as a weed. [6]

Because of its parasitic nature kaunaʻoa kahakai is often called "the motherless plant." [3]

Early Hawaiian Use


Kaunaʻoa or kaunaʻoa kahakai was used in lei making for both lei o ka poʻo (head lei) and lei āʻī (neck lei) [1,3,8,9]


Both kaunaʻoa kahakai and kaunaʻoa pehu (Cassytha filiformis) were used. The plants were pounded until soft, strained, and juice drunk to thin blood for women who have given birth or whose had thick blood. [2]

Modern Use

Kaunaʻoa kahakai is still used in lei making today. [1,3] Lei kaunaʻoa is "worn like a feather cloak upon's one's shoulders." [7]

Plants grown under cultivation for lei making will reduce gathering from wild populations for use.

Additional References

[1] "Nā Lei Makamae--The Treasured Lei" by Marie A. McDonald & Paul R. Weissich, pages 36-37.

[2] "Native Hawaiian Medicine--Volume III" by The Rev. Kaluna M. Kaʻaiakamanu, pages 58-59.

[3] "In Gardens of Hawaii" by Marie C. Neal, page 710-711.

[4] "Hawai'i's Plants and Animals--Biological Sketches of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park" by Charles P. Stone & Linda W. Pratt, page 107.

[5] [Accessed on 7/11/11]

[6] "Handbook of Hawaiian Weeds" by E. L. Haselwood, page 304.

[7] "Nā Hoaloha o Lānaʻi (Vol. 2, Issue 2) January 2009" by the Lānaʻi Culture & Heritage Center, page 1.

[8] "Plants in Hawaiian Culture" by Beatrice H. Krauss, page 77.

[9] "Lāʻau Hawaiʻi: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants" by Isabella Aiona Abbott, pages 127, 128.

[10] "Growing Plants for Hawaiian Lei" by CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources), Universirty of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, pages 16-17.

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This record is as complete as we can generate for this plant profile at this point. Please email if you wish to contribute to the data. Please include sources and references for all data submitted