Wikstroemia uva-ursi

leaf Main Plant Information

Genus

Wikstroemia

Species

uva-ursi

Varieties

  • kauaiensis
  • uva-ursi

Hawaiian Names with Diacritics

  • Aoaoa
  • Kauhi
  • ʻĀkia

Hawaiian Names

  • Akia
  • Aoaoa
  • Kauhi

Common Names

  • Fish poison plant
  • Hillside false ʻōhelo

Synonyms

  • Diplomorpha uva-ursi
  • Wikstroemia foetida f. humilis
  • Wikstroemia foetida var. glauca
  • Wikstroemia monticola var. occidentalis

leaf Plant Characteristics

Distribution Status

Endemic

Endangered Species Status

No Status

Plant Form / Growth Habit

  • Sprawling Shrub

Mature Size, Height (in feet)

  • Shrub, Small, 2 to 6

Mature Size, Width

ʻĀkia is known to grow to 2 to 5 feet in width.

Life Span

Long lived (Greater than 5 years)

Landscape Uses

  • Accent
  • Container
  • Ground Cover
  • Hedges
  • Specimen Plant

Additional Landscape Use Information

This ʻākia, in particular, has been a popular choice for many years now in landscapes in Hawaiʻi. The decorative foliage and the red, orange or yellow fruit make this species a valuable and wonderful contribution to Hawaiian gardens.

Although it grows best in coastal or hot lowland areas, it will also do well almost anywhere, especially in xericscape landscapes. [8]

This a great container plant that will do well in full sun with regular watering. [2]

Even though no reported poisonings have been reported, some believe that the fruits and bark are toxic and should be planted out of the reach of children. [Rick Barboza, Hui Kū Maoli Ola] Regardless, the sap can burn sensitive skin and eyes.

Companion Plants:

ʻIlima, ʻaʻaliʻi, kupukupu, pōhinahina, ʻilieʻe, ʻūlei, and kuluī.

Source of Fragrance

  • Flowers

Additional Fragrance Information

The clusters of tiny tubular fragrant flowers have a distinct musky smell which, especially in early evening, is easily detected from a distance. [Rick Barboza, Hui Kū Maoli Ola]

Plant Produces Flowers

Yes

leaf Flower Characteristics

Flower Type

Not Showy

Flower Colors

  • Yellow

Blooming Period

  • Year Round
  • Sporadic
  • Fall
  • Winter

Additional Blooming Period and Fruiting Information

Plants of this species of ʻākia are either male or female. Female plants, after flowering, produce attractive round fruits which are yellow, orange or red.

leaf Leaf Characteristics

Plant texture

  • Fine
  • Medium

Leaf Colors

  • Light Green
  • Medium Green

Additional Leaf Color Information

ʻĀkia leaves range from dark to light green and are opaque or glaucous.

leaf Pests and Diseases

Additional Pest & Disease Information

ʻĀkia is prone to ants, scale, aphids and mealy bugs. Chickens are known to eat the fruit and to scratch at the roots.

leaf Growth Requirements

Fertilizer

Apply a balanced slow release fertilizer with minor elements every 6 months. Foliar feed monthly with a kelp or fish emulsion, or a water-soluble fertilizer with a dilution of one-half to one-third of the recommended strength.[David Eickhoff, Native Plants Hawaiʻi]

How to Plant a Native Hawaiian Garden notes this:

"More vigorous growth may be encouraged by occasional drenching with ocean water." [8]

Pruning Information

ʻĀkia takes pruning well. Hedges can be shaped closely but be careful not to prune too severely.

Water Requirements

  • Dry

Additional Water Information

When well established, water only once or twice a month in dry periods.

Soil must be well drained

Yes

Light Conditions

  • Full sun
  • Partial sun

Additional Lighting Information

ʻĀkia prefers full sun.

Spacing Information

Plants should be spaced between 12 to 24 inches apart.

Tolerances

  • Drought
  • Wind
  • Salt Spray
  • Heat

Soils

  • Clay
  • Cinder
  • Organic
  • Coral

Limitations

Avoid water-logged soils. Not all plants produce fruits.

leaf Environmental Information

Natural Range

  • Kauaʻi
  • Oʻahu
  • Molokaʻi
  • Maui

Natural Zones (Elevation in feet, Rainfall in inches)

  • Less than 150, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 150 to 1000, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 1000 to 1999, 0 to 50 (Dry)

Habitat

  • Terrestrial

Additional Habitat Information

In its native habitat, this plant is rare or scattered on dry ridges, open hillsides, ledges, windswept headlands, clay flats, ʻaʻā lava, coastal areas, and among low, dry, open alien vegetation from about 10 feet above sea level to over 1375 feet.

leaf Special Features and Information

General Information

ʻĀkia belong to Daphne family (Thymelaeaceae). There are a dozen endemic species in the Hawaiian Islands.

Wikstroemia monticola is a close relative of W. uva-ursi. The main difference is that W. monticola is always a small tree, whereas W. uva-ursi is a sprawling shrub.

Etymology

The genus is named for Johan Emanuel Wikström (1789-1856), a Swedish botanist and author of several papers on Thymelaeaceae.

The species and varietal name uva-ursi is from the Latin uva, grape or berry, and ursi, bear, literally "bear's grape" or bearberry.

The varietal name kauaiensis is in reference to Kauaʻi, where it is endemic.

Hawaiian Names:

Botanist William Hillebrand (1888) states the Hawaiian names for the genus are "akia" or "akea." Hillebrand (1888) also states the root of the word may be in the Fijian name for the genus mati and that the native name for the genus in Tahiti is ovao. [6]

The name ʻākia is also shared by Solanum nelsonii, a small endemic shrub in the Solanaceae or Nightshade family.

ʻĀkia also means "to ferment; very sour, as poi. ʻAi ʻākia, sour poi." [5] Any name realionship is uncertain.

Distinctive varieties are named lau nui, mānalo, and pehu. [5]

Aoaoa and kauhi are alternate names for this species.

Background Information

The common name "false ohelo" is attributed to the fact that the fruits of ʻākia resemble the orange or red ʻōhelo (Vaccinium spp.) berries.

ʻĀkia is sometimes referred to as the "fish poison plant."

Early Hawaiian Use

ʻĀkia bark was used as a source of fiber material for ropes. [3] Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaiʻi, B. Peterson (1990) states that “Species of Wikestroemia have furnished one of the strongest Hawaiian fibers, used in making ropes and braids. It is also said to have been used in making kapa. Measurements made from fibers of branches desiccated for 6 months demonstrated that the density of Wikestroemia fibers was about the same as that of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) and ramie (Boehmeria nivea)."

The wood, likely from larger species, was used as ‘auamo (carrying sticks) and [7] also used as a type of ceremonial firewood in ʻanaʻana magic (Kamakau 1991). [6]

Medicinally, the sap of ʻākia (Wikestroemia spp.) mixed with niu (coconut) and kō kea (white sugarcane) was taken internally with ‘uala (sweet potato) as a purgative. The leaves and leaf buds were mixed with the bark of ‘ōhi‘a ‘ai (Syzygium malaccense) and ‘uhaloa root (Waltheria indica), niu, kō ‘aina kea (a sugarcane variety). Plant material was pounded, water added, strained, and the liquid taken internally for wai‘ōpua pa‘a (leukorrhea) and nae kūlou (shortness of breath?). [7]

Roots, bark, leaves and stems were used as a poison to stupefy fish called hola which were then gathered by the early Hawaiians. The plant parts were crushed, placed in a porous container, and sunk in salt water pools. The fish were safe to eat because ʻākia is not known to be poisonous to warm-blooded creatures by means of this fishing method. [3]

So is ʻĀkia Poisonous or Not?

Alkaloids can be extracted from various parts of the plants, and ʻākia has an old reputation for being poisonous. Reputable sources mention that ʻākia was used in old Hawaiʻi as a death penalty for those who broke kapu. The guilty party was forced to drink the juice of ʻākia, causing seizure and death. [1,4]  Botanist Otto Degener (1945) mentions that criminals were executed by means of a deadly drink prepared from roots and bark of ʻākia together with parts of other plants. However, another reputable reference says that 'no parts of ʻākia are poisonous to mammals,' likely including humans. [2] However, it is possible that not all species of Wikestroemia are poisonous, judging by experiments where ʻākia has been shown to be nontoxic. Handy and Handy (1972:239) distinguished two types of ʻākia: a bitter ʻākia (ʻākia ʻawa) and a ‘mild’ ʻākia (ʻākia manalo). The bitter ʻākia is described as a shrub that bears orange-red fruits, a description that matches that of most Hawaiian Wikestroemia species. Of this type they write that decoctions of the bark and roots are deadly poisonous and were used for killing and suicide. The other mild type of ʻākia, of which no description is given, is described as not being poisonous but rather whose bark and leaves were used as a narcotic. [6]

Either way, it is probably best to side with caution and avoid ingesting any parts of ʻākia until sound information is available.

Modern Use

The fruits can be used in lei.

Ethanol extracts from this species has also been shown to have anti-tumor activity.

Regarding the toxicity or lack thereof, How to Plant a Native Hawaiian Garden notes this:

"In Hawaii, only the toxicity of Wikstroemia pulcherrima Skottb. has been studied extensively by Dr. Frank Tabrath. W. pulcherrima has caused mice to go to sleep. The toxicity of W. pulcherrima varies from high to zero toxicity even in the same plant at different times. Many people have eaten the berries for years without ill effects." [8] (See subheading above "Early Hawaiian Use")

Additional References

[1] "Amy Greenwell Garden Ethnobotanical Guide to Native Hawaiian Plants & Polynesian Introduced Plants" by Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, page 10.

[2] "Container Gardening in Hawaii" by Janice Crowl, page 52.

[3] "In Gardens of Hawaii" by Marie C. Neal, page 616.

[4] "Hawaiian Natural History, and Evolution" by Alan C. Ziegler, pages 197-198.

[5] http://www.wehewehe.org [Accessed on 09/15/11]

[6] "Auwahi: Ethnobotany of a Hawaiian Dryland Forest" by A.C. Medeiros, C.F. Davenport & C.G. Chimera, pages 19-20.

[7] "Hawaiian Ethnobotany Online Database" http://data.bishopmuseum.org/ethnobotanydb [Accessed 1/30/13]

[8] "How to Plant a Native Hawaiian Garden" by Kenneth M. Nagata, page "ʻĀkia."

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