Phytolacca sandwicensis

leaf Main Plant Information

Genus

Phytolacca

Species

sandwicensis

Hawaiian Names with Diacritics

  • Pōpolo
  • Pōpolo kū mai

Hawaiian Names

  • Popolo
  • Popolo ku mai

Common Names

  • Hawaiian pokeberry
  • Hawaiʻi pokeweed
  • Native pokeberry
  • Pokeberry
  • Pokeweed

Synonyms

  • Phytolacca brachystachys
  • Phytolacca brachystacys var. puberulenta
  • Phytolacca sandwicensis var. puberulenta

leaf Plant Characteristics

Distribution Status

Endemic

Endangered Species Status

No Status

Plant Form / Growth Habit

  • Non-Woody, Spreading

Mature Size, Height (in feet)

  • Herbaceous, Medium, 1-3
  • Herbaceous, Tall, Greater than 3

Mature Size, Width

Based on the few mature plants under cultivation, pōpolo kū mai in the landscape spread more than six to perhaps ten feet or more.

Life Span

Long lived (Greater than 5 years)

Landscape Uses

  • Accent
  • Container
  • Ground Cover

Additional Landscape Use Information

Little information is currently present for pōpolo kū mai in the modern landscape. Yet it spread as a low to medium height to only four to six feet under cultivation.

This is a wonderfully promising and great landscape plant for low to mid elevation landscpes.

Plant Produces Flowers

Yes

leaf Flower Characteristics

Flower Type

Showy

Flower Colors

  • Pink
  • White

Additional Flower Color Information

While the individual flowers themselves are not dramatic, the flowering/fruiting spike is unique among the native plants with pink, rose or occasionally white flowers and dark purple fruits.

leaf Leaf Characteristics

Plant texture

  • Medium

Additional Plant Texture Information

Leaves are oval and can be glabrous (no hairs or fuzz) or puberulent (tiny hairs).

Plants from Maui and Molokaʻi are more densely puberulent along the stem and inflorescense (flowering stem) and were once  referred to as var. puberulenta. However, less densely puberulent also occur in the area.

Leaf Colors

  • Light Green
  • Medium Green

leaf Pests and Diseases

Additional Pest & Disease Information

Ants, scale, mealybugs, aphids.

leaf Growth Requirements

Pruning Information

Plants can become unruly in confined areas. But, pōpolo kū mai appears to take modest trimming well.

Water Requirements

  • Moist
  • Wet

Soil must be well drained

Yes

Light Conditions

  • Partial sun

Additional Lighting Information

Though pōpolo kū mai can grow in sunny open areas, they look their best when provided with some shade.

Soils

  • Cinder
  • Organic

leaf Environmental Information

Natural Range

  • Kauaʻi
  • Oʻahu
  • Molokaʻi
  • Maui
  • Hawaiʻi

Natural Zones (Elevation in feet, Rainfall in inches)

  • 150 to 1000, 50 to 100 (Mesic)
  • 150 to 1000, Greater than 100 (Wet)
  • 1000 to 1999, 50 to 100 (Mesic)
  • 1000 to 1999, Greater than 100 (Wet)
  • 2000 to 2999, 50 to 100 (Mesic)
  • 2000 to 2999, Greater than 100 (Wet)
  • 3000 to 3999, 50 to 100 (Mesic)
  • 3000 to 3999, Greater than 100 (Wet)
  • 4000 to 4999, 50 to 100 (Mesic)
  • 4000 to 4999, Greater than 100 (Wet)

Habitat

  • Terrestrial

Additional Habitat Information

Pōpolo kū mai is found in open areas or streambeds in mesic and wet forests from under 400 to nearly 6500 feet on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Maui, and Hawaiʻi.

leaf Special Features and Information

General Information

Phytolacca is a genus of about 25 in the Phytolaccaceae family and found North America, South America, East Asia, New Zealand and one endemic species in the Hawaiian Islands.

Etymology

The generic name Phytolacca is Greek for plant dye, referring to the sap of the fruit.

The species name sandwicensis 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.

Hawaiian Names:

Pōpolo kū mai is a name also used by another unrelated plant, the very rare native Solanum imcompleteum.

Background Information

The Hawaiian pokeberry or Pōpolo kū mai, is one of the few truly poisonous native plants to mammals and humans. Birds, however, are unaffected by the toxins and feed on the berries which help in seed dispersal. All parts pf the plants contain alkaloid phytolaccine and other triterpene toxins which impair formation or damage of red blood cells. The toxins also irritate the digestive system and can affect the central nervous system. [1]

The non-native red inkplant (Phytolacca octandra) is naturalized on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and Maui, and hybridizes with pōpolo kū mai where the two species occur together.

Early Hawaiian Use

Early Hawaiians used the dark purple pōpolo kū mai as a tattoo dye. [2]

Modern Use

So, given its toxic nature, why would one want to grow pōpolo kū mai in their garden? Well, we might be surprised to learn that many plants we have growing in our own yard, or even inside our homes, are many times more toxic than our native pokeberry. The combination of good knowledge, common sense, and caution are keys with handling any plant that one is unfamiliar with.

That said, pōpolo kū mai are attractive shrubs, especially during flowering and fruiting, and have potential for future landscaping needs. These have recently been seen more in landscapes and introduced by native Hawaiian plant enthusiasts. They appear to grow well from near sea level and lower elevations (at least down to 300 ft.) in Hawaiʻi. [David Eickhoff, Native Plants Hawaii]

Additional References

[1] "Poisonous Plants of Paradise" by Susan Scott and Craig Thomas, pages 147-148.
[2] "Plants in Hawaiian Culture" by Beatrice H. Krauss, page 67.

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