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The Flowering Plants of Hawaii (beta)

Part 29 Moraceae - Myoporaceae


Ficus bengalensis
Ficus bengalensis, the famous banyan of Lahaina, Maui.
Ficus bengalensis
Lahaina banyan In full fruit.

Probably the most well known member of the Moraceae is mulberry (Morus nigra is the common black mulberry, and others), whose leaves are the food for silk moths; and whose fruit is considered a delicacy in some cultures. Another very well known, and widely planted, member of the family is Ficus, a huge genus with some 850 (Mabberley, pp. 336-338) to 1,000 species (Manual). Many Ficus species are cultivated in the Hawaiian Islands but the absence of specific wasps necessary to fertilize the species means that seed is never set. Of the four fig wasps that have been introduced only the one specific for Ficus macrocarpa, the Chinese or Malayan banyan, has led to naturalization of the host plant.

Vegetative growth of Ficus species, however, is a very successful process best appreciated by visiting the town square in Lähainä, Maui (see images) where a single banyan tree shades the entire area. Visitors to Hilo may have been introduced to Banyan Drive, lined by big trees each identified by some celebrity name. Other trees in Hilo include a large one growing next to the Wailuku River Bridge (see image), and an attractive specimen in a small park across the street from the Post Office.

Ficus bengalensis
Heavily tangled Ficus sp. trunk.
Roots of Ficus growing on the bank of the Wailuku River, Hilo.

The most important member of Moraceae, as far as Hawaiians are concerned, is Broussonetia papyrifera, the paper mulberry, wauke or po`a`aha in Hawaiian (see images). The bark of wauke is used for preparation of kapa (tapa) cloth. Typical products made from kapa, table mats widely available for sale in the islands, are illustrated here (see images). Wauke is native to southeastern and eastern Asia and has been cultivated for centuries. Polynesian colonists brought wauke with them on their journeys of discovery. The specimen featured in the illustrations above is growing in the native garden in the NTBG Canoe Plant section. The Limahuli Garden on Kaua`i also has wauke in its collection.

tapa cloth sellers
Broussonetia papyrifera plant.
tapa cloth
Broussonetia leaves, detail.
tapa cloth sellers
Tapa cloth products available at the Farmers' Market in Hilo.
tapa cloth
One of the tapa cloth table settings that we use.

Artocarpus altilis
Artocarpus altilis tree with fruit.
Artocarpus altilis
Artocarpus altilis fruit on tree, closer view. Note different leaf form.

Another plant brought to the islands by Polynesian colonists was Artocarpus altilis, `ulu, the breadfruit whose large, green, dimpled fruit and characteristic leaves (see images) are familiar sights on most of the islands. Falling breadfruits can be a problem as suggested by the warning sign at a hotel in Hilo (image below).

The leaves also offer an attractive and popular design on tee shirts (image below). Artocarpus is an Indomalaysian genus of 45 species, several of which have been cultivated for use as highly nutritious foods and for the manufacture of wood products including small canoes, surf boards, and musical instruments (Meilleur et al. 2004). `Ulu has been cultivated for so long that it no longer can reproduce by seed; propagation must be through cuttings. Over 150 varieties of `ulu from 16 Pacific island groups are maintained by the NTBG at the Kahanu facility on Maui's north coast. Although the breadfruit has taken second place to taro (kalo) in the Hawaiian diet, it is nonetheless a valued plant; few Hawaiian homes are without a breadfruit tree as a living connection with the past.

Artocarpus altilis
Sign warning of falling breadfruits. No small joke!.
breadfruit shirt
Dr. Mike Hawkes modelling tee-shirt featuring breadfruit design.

A relative of `ulu is the jack (or jak) fruit, A. heterophyllus, whose fruit, reputed to be the largest known tree-borne fruit, can reach 90 cm in length and can weight up to 40 kg. A moderate sized jack fruit being grown in a nursery on the Big Island is featured here (see images}. The fruit can be eaten cooked or raw. I have heard it described as an acquired taste; after having tried it, I don't think I'll make the effort.

Artocarpus heterophyllus, the jackfruit
Jackfruit opened for extraction of edible (?) contents.

From time to time one encounters references to the Indian mulberry, which is not a true mulberry at all. The correct botanical name for Indian mulberry is Morinda citrifolia, noni in Hawaiian. This Polynesian introduction will be discussed in the section below in the section devoted to Rubiaceae the family to which noni belongs.

Myoporum sandwicense
Myoporum sandwicense. Juvenile tree.
Ficus bengalensis
Flowers of Myoporum sandwicense


The sole member of Myoporaceae on the Hawaiian Islands is the indigenous Myoporum sandwicense known otherwise from Mangaia Island in the Cook Islands (see images). It is known locally by two names, naio in Hawaiian (also naeo and naieo, alternative spellings) and bastard sandalwood in English. The Hawaiian name is simply that, the name for the plant; its English name, however, reflects upon a shameful time in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. When sandalwoods had been brought to the brink of extinction through severe harvesting for the Oriental market (details under Santalaceae below), attention was turned to naio whose heartwood aroma resembles that of sandalwood. Fortunately for naio, buyers rejected this substitute outright, thus saving it from a santalian fate. The bastard sandalwood name has been retained. Naio occurs widely in the islands and can be found in a variety of habitats including coastal sites, a`a lava, and in mesic to wet forests at elevations ranging from sea level to the subalpine. An attractive and easily accessible site for visitors to see naio is Pu`u Huluhulu on the Big Island (hill at the crest of the Saddle Road).

Literature cited…

Meilleur, B. A., R. R. Jones, C. A. Titchenal, and A, S, Huang. 2004. Hawaiian Breadfruit. Ethnobotany, Nutrition, and Human Ecology. College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawai`i at Manoa, Honolulu.

May 6, 2012

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