Thespesia populnea

leaf Main Plant Information





Hawaiian Names with Diacritics

  • Milo

Hawaiian Names

  • Milo

Common Names

  • Indian tulip tree
  • Pacific rosewood
  • Portia tree
  • Portiatree


  • Hibiscus populneus
  • Thespesia macrophylla

leaf Plant Characteristics

Endangered Species Status

No Status

Plant Form / Growth Habit

  • Tree

Mature Size, Height (in feet)

  • Tree, Medium, 30 to 50
  • Tree, Large, Greater than 50

Mature Size, Width

Milo can over several decades have a copy spread of 30 to 40 feet at maturity. The oldest trees have a spread of nearly 70 feet. [15]

Life Span

Long lived (Greater than 5 years)

Landscape Uses

  • Accent
  • Container
  • Hedges
  • Provides Shade
  • Screening
  • Specimen Plant

Additional Landscape Use Information

Milo is easy to grow and care for, although it can be considered messy since it drops numerous leaves and dry seed capsules year round. This is an excellent tree for coastal properties that constantly battle with wind and salt spray.

Source of Fragrance

  • No Fragrance

Additional Fragrance Information

Milo wood has a nice spicy fragrance only when fresh, disappearing when carved into finished wood products.

Plant Produces Flowers


leaf Flower Characteristics

Flower Type


Flower Colors

  • Orange
  • Yellow

Additional Flower Color Information

Flower petals are yellow with maroon centers. The bright yellow flowers open early in the day, turning to a medium to dark orange later in the day.

Blooming Period

  • Year Round

Additional Blooming Period and Fruiting Information

Flowers last one day. Brown or grayish papery seed capsules form after flowering.

leaf Leaf Characteristics

Plant texture

  • Fine
  • Medium
  • Coarse

Additional Plant Texture Information

Milo leaves range from 2 to 12 inches long.

Leaf Colors

  • Dark Green
  • Light Green
  • Medium Green

Additional Leaf Color Information

The leaves are shiny yellow to dark green.

leaf Pests and Diseases

Additional Pest & Disease Information

Milo does not appear to be bothered by many pests.

leaf Growth Requirements


Foliar feed young milo trees once a month in early morning with a water soluble or an organic fertilizer (e.g. kelp or fish emulsion) at one-third to one-fourth the recommended strength. [David Eickhoff, Native Plants Hawaiʻi]

Pruning Information

Milo is not a self-pruning tree. It recovers slowly from pruning, so best to be selective about which parts and the amount to prune at any one time.

Water Requirements

  • Dry

Soil must be well drained


Light Conditions

  • Full sun
  • Partial sun

Additional Lighting Information

Milo prefer full sun.


  • Waterlogged Soil
  • Drought
  • Brackish Water
  • Wind
  • Salt Spray
  • Heat


  • Clay
  • Sand
  • Cinder
  • Organic
  • Coral

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)


  • Terrestrial

Additional Habitat Information

Milo is known to grow in protected coastal sites near streams exposed to tidal influence and not far inland from sea level to about 900 feet. Trees and shrubs can be found growing naturally at the high tide line above mangrove, but can tolerate an occasional brackish water tidal inundation.

Milo is apparently not as common as in the past due to over harvesting in some areas.

leaf Special Features and Information

General Information

Milo is a member of the Mallow family or Malvaceae. There are eighteen species in the genus Thespesia but perhaps the best known and widely distributed one is the pantropic portia or milo (Thespesia populnea).


The generic name Thespesia is derived from the Greek thespesios, divine, referring to T. populnea, which was collected in Tahiti by Captain Cook's expedition in 1769 and was reported to be a sacred tree and planted around places of worship.

The specific epithet populnea, poplar-like, likely in reference to the leaves resembling some poplar (Populus spp.) tree species.

Hawaiian Name:

Milo means to twist, curl, or spin. This name is also used in the Marshall Islands and American Samoa. [15]

Background Information

This is probably an indigenous tree. However, to date, there is no conclusive evidence to support milo as indigenous. [6,12,14] Even so, milo is also one of the canoe plants that the Polynesians brought with them to the islands, and certainly not invasive as its non-native cousin hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus), also brought in by the early settlers.

The fruits and seeds are salt tolerant and are distributed island to island by sea. The seeds will germinate even after a year in seawater. [15]

Even though the flowers and young leaves are reported to be mildly poisoness, [15] milo is one of the few plants that were listed as an emergency food during World War II in a manual called “Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific” by the War Department. It states that “the purpose of this manual is to aid the individual who becomes separated from his unit…so that this individual can live off the land.” It then briefly identifies the plant and how to prepare it. [8]

Early Hawaiian Use

Milo was popular as a shade tree among the early Hawaiians, but had many practical uses as well. [16]


The inner bark was used for its fiber as such and for corage, but was somewhat inferior to hau for these purposes. [16]


The fruits produce a yellowish green dye. [3,9,16]


Early Hawaiians found young milo leaves, flowers, and flower buds to be edible. [5,9,10,15,16]

House Furnishings:

The beautiful wood was prized by early Hawaiians, second only to kou, to make food bowls (ʻumeke milo), poi calabashes, platters (pā milo), and dishes because the wood gave no unpleasant taste to the food like some other native woods, such as koa. [1,3,5,10,14,15]


The yellow flowers were used by lei makers. [7]


Milo was considered a sacred tree and the use prohibited by commoners. [4] The house of King Kamehameha I in Waikīkī was surrounded by milo. [9,16]

Other Uses:

The bark was used as cordage. [3,9] Milo also produced medicine, oil, and gum from plant parts. [3,9,16]

Modern Use

Today, the seeds are sometimes strung for permanent lei. [2]

The dark heartwood is moderately heavy, durable, and easy to work with. The wood has low shrinkage rate when drying [15] and has been fashioned into beautiful items such as carvings, bowls and platters. [11,12,13] Milo is also used in boat building and in cabinet making. [15]

In Hawaiʻi and elsewhere in the tropics, milo is sometimes used as street or park trees, or as a living fence. [15]

Uses Outside of Hawaiʻi:

In the West Indies, where cotton is an important crop, this naturalized species is eradicated because it is a host of the cotton stainer (Dysdercus sp.), a red insect that stains fibers of growing cotton. [15]

Thespecia garckeana from East Africa has edible fruits.

The fibers of Thespecia lampas from Africa to the Philippines is like sunn or sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea), which is more durable than jute. [14]

Additional References

[1] "Arts and Crafts of Hawaii" by Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter H. Buck), pages 37-38.
[2] "Hawaiʻi's Seeds and Seed Leis--An Indentification Guide" by Laurie Shimizu Ide, pages 96-97.

[3] "Plants in Hawaiian Culture" by Beatrice H. Krauss, pages 23, 66.

[4] "Plants of the Canoe People" by W. Arthur Whistler, page 210.

[5] "Plants of Old Hawaii" by Lois Lucas, page 56.

[6] Dr. David Burney, NTBG (pers. comm.)

[7] "Nā Lei Makamae--The Treasured Lei" by Marie A. McDonald & Paul R. Weissich, page 92.

[8] “Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific” by the War Department (April 15, 1943), page  70.

[9] "In Gardens of Hawaii" by Marie C. Neal, pages 563-564.

[10] "Resource Units in Hawaiian Culture" by Donald D. Kilolani Mitchell, pages 120, 130-131.

[11] "Hawai'i's Plants and Animals--Biological Sketches of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park" by Charles P. Stone & Linda W. Pratt, page 63.

[12] "Back to the Future in Caves of Kauaʻi--A Scientist's Adventures in the Dark" by David A. Burney, page 128.

[13] "Contemporary Woodworkers" by Tiffany DeEtte Shafto & Lynda McDaniel, page 188.

[14] "Paradisus: Hawaiian Plant Watercolors" by Geraldine King Tam and David J. Mabberley, page 40.

[15] "Common Forest Trees of Hawaii (Native and Introduced)" by Elbert L. Little Jr. and Roger G. Skolmen, pages 222-223.

[16] "Ethnobotany of Hawaii" by Beatrice H. Krauss, page 163.

leafMore Links

Plant Gallery

View Photo Gallery

Back to Plant List

Plant List

Other Nursery Profiles for Thespesia populnea