Endemic Hawaiian Māmaki and the Kamehameha Butterfly

Māmaki (Pipturus albidus) is endemic to Hawai’i, meaning it’s only found naturally in the Hawaiian Islands. It originates from the nettle family, but unlike its stinging relatives this species has evolved in Hawai’i without needing those defenses. It’s widely known as a medicinal tea, but its connection to the natural world is much more far-reaching culturally as well as biologically. 

The relationship it has in this ecosystem is more complex than one may think.  A special bond has formed between the endemic māmaki and one of only two native Hawaiian butterfly species, the Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea). The Hawaiian name for this butterfly is pulelehua, pulele meaning “to float” and lehua “reddish or rainbow-colored”. While māmaki can be used medicinally, it can also be cultivated to attract these native butterflies.

(Image by DNLR)

Māmaki is an important plant in Hawaiian culture and is revered as a medicinal herb for all of its powerful, potent properties. Every aspect of this plant can be utilized including the bark, berry, seed and leaf. Traditionally the bark is beaten into kapa (cloth), the roots are used as a dye, and the berries and leaves used as various medicines. During the later months of pregnancy, women would eat the fruits and seeds of the plant. Crushed up berries were also given to children to treat thrush due to it’s mild laxative effects (Krauss. B. "Plants in Hawaiian Culture" page 64.). A study by the University of Hawaii found that māmaki tea has a higher content of antioxidants than commercial tea. These specific antioxidants include catechins, chlorogenic acid and rutin which are found in chocolate, root vegetables and red wine. The physiological effects are said to be uplifting, detoxifying and combats fatigue symptoms. 

Māmaki is one of the best host species for reintroducing the Kamehameha butterfly into potential natural areas. These two species are so well adapted to each other they even resemble one another. As caterpillars, they camouflage into the bright green color of the māmaki leaves. They’re able to create a safe shelter for themselves by carving out the leaves and folding it over to hide and eat. “As chrysalises, they look like dried up māmaki leaves, as do the undersides of their wings as adults.” (Ladao, M, 2018). In March and December of 2017, Department of Land and Natural Resources researcher William Haines and a volunteer restoration group released 200 individuals in Tantalus Pu'u 'Ualaka'a State Park on Oahu. Read more about project on the Kamehameha butterfly here. 

Our January theme at Big Island Box is māmaki, and we are featuring products from several different Big Island farms and small businesses that specialize in māmaki. Featured māmaki vendors include:

All of these vendors make incredible māmaki tea products, order a Big Island Box by January 23rd to get a taste of these companies and many more! 

If you live in Hawaii and are interested in the health benefits and supporting native butterfly populations, consider planting māmaki where you live. The chances of attracting native butterflies are even higher if you live near native forest. Do you live in a residential area? Try and convince your neighbors to join you in planting māmaki! Check out this article if you’d like to learn more about how to successfully grow māmaki and support your health and native Hawaiian plant and insect populations! 


Haines. W, “The Kamehameha Butterfly and the Pulelehua Project”. University of Hawaii Master Gardener Program. retrieved by: https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/uhmg/news/V7-Haines-Pulelehua.pdf 

Sugano, R. Saito, J. Uyeda, S. Fukuda, S. Migita, R. Corrales , T. Radovich, and J. Silva. (December 2017). “Māmaki Hawai’i’s Endemic Tea”, University of Hawaiˋi at Mānoa

College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, retrieved by: https://gms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/gs/handler/getmedia.ashx?moid=29346&dt=3&g=12 

Ladao, M. (2018). “Reviving the Kamehameha butterfly population at Tantalus” Kaleo News. retrieved by: http://www.manoanow.org/kaleo/news/reviving-the-kamehameha-butterfly-population-at-tantalus/article_39134810-0a26-11e8-8b05-d318d2728572.html