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Hibiscus kokio
Hibiscus kokio | Hibiscus kokioHawaiian Red Hibiscus, Red Koki‘o, Koki‘o ‘Ula ‘Ula, Pualoalo

Hibiscus kokio is a small tree with red flowers. This Hawaiian species is not officially red-listed, but it is rare in nature. In Kauai, it can grow at elevations 70-890m. Hibiscus kokio is a variable species, usually with red to orangish-red flowers. Historically, Hawaiians used the petals to make kapa dye, and its wood produced a fine charcoal. References to the koki‘o ‘ula‘ula (‘ula means “red”) are found in old Hawaiian songs and legends. It was also popular for making leis, and was one of the few species that Hawaiians traditionally planted around their dwellings for its flowers. Hibiscus kokio was the official flower of Hawaii back in 1923, but was later replaced by Hibiscus brackenridgei. Two subspecies are recognized:

Hibiscus kokio ssp. kokio found in the dry to wet forests on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and possibly Hawaii; Hibiscus kokio var. kahilii currently seems to refer to a naturally occurring pink-flowered form. For more information on Hibiscus kokio var. kahilii, see: Endemic Pink Hibiscus Hails From Kauai
Hibiscus kokio ssp. saintjohnianus A very rare endemic plant found in the coastal valleys of northwestern Kaua‘i with orange (sometimes yellow) flowers. This subspecies was named for one of Hawai‘i’s botanists, Harold St.John.

Reference: By 1885 most of Hawaii's thirty-three species of native hibiscus were rare, having succumbed to the ravages of cattle and blight. Although amateurs hybridizers utilized the re-flowered ones only infrequently for breeding experiments (the whites were more popular), those concerned for their survival brought many cuttings into cultivation. If you are privileged to own one, treat it as any hibiscus bush. Water it well and prune periodically to stimulate fresh flowering branches. Hibiscus, like fuchsias, bloom most profusely on new growth. Koki'o 'ula roots readily from cuttings.

Before cattle were introduced into Hawai'i to roam freely, wild red hibiscus bushes were available to Hawaiians for use in decoration. rituals, tapa cloth (the best fiber was from the inner bark), dyes, and medicines. All parts of the plant are edible (for example, roots, flower buds, sap. and leaves were welcome tonics to purify weakened or clogged-up innards). Adults chewed red hIbiscus buds and leaves to relieve constipation, and small doses of the mildly acting buds were even administered to babies. A traditional blood purifier incorporated red hibiscus roots pounded with dried tree fern trunks and morning glory roots. Sugarcane was added to mask the unpalatable taste.

Hawaiian heritage plants
By Angela Kay Kepler
Published by University of Hawaii Press, 1998