Customers come into the nursery often looking for Crown Flower plants because they want to attract Monarch butterflies. We appreciate supporting all our pollinators and are happy to grow Crown Flower; however if you’re passionate about native flora and fauna we would love to introduce you to Hawaiian native butterflies and their host plants.
Native Hawaiian Butterflies
Pulelehua is the Hawaiian word for butterfly. Did you know that there are two native Hawaiian species of Pulelehua? (There are also 955 native Hawaiian species of moths, but for this article we will focus on the butterflies.)
The first pulelehua is the Kamehameha butterfly, Vanessa tameamea, after King Kamehameha V, our endemic state butterfly.
Monarch ButterflyThe Kamehameha butterfly looks very similar to the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, but has distinct differences. The Monarch has a black body with white spots, a patterned spiderweb of orange with black webbing, and a white dotted border set in black trim around the edge of the wing.
The Kamehameha butterfly has a brown fuzzy body, which bleeds into a brownish red central pentagon trimmed in black. The brownish red pentagon is surrounded by a similar orange and black spiderweb as the Monarch, but it also has 2 black dots set in orange and the wing’s edge is solid black trim and only 4 white dots at the upper wings tips. The lower wing set has 4 black dots set in orange.
Hawaiian Blue Butterfly
Hawaiian Blue butterfly- Wings Closed
Hawaiian Blue butterfly- Wings Open
The other native endemic butterfly is the Hawaiian Blue butterfly, Udara blackburnii.
When the Hawaiian Blue butterfly lands, its wings are closed, displaying a shimmery pearl blue green color.
If you get the chance to see the wings open, the inside is more of a blueish purple shimmer, with a shimmery gold trim, a stark contrast to the outer wings.
Native Hawaiian Butterfly Host Plants
The host plant for the caterpillar stage of the Kamehameha Butterfly is none other than Mamaki, Pipterus albidus, an endemic shrub, growing 5-15 feet tall in full sun or shade, depending on the variety.
The leaves are a yellowish green broad heart shape, with either red or green veins. The flowers are reminiscent of mulberries or pussy willows, if you’re familiar with the mainland plant.
Adult Kamehameha pulelehua lay their eggs on Mamaki and when it’s time, the caterpillar rolls itself in a leaf for its cocoon stage.
Other host plants for Kamehameha caterpillars are also natives in the plant family Urticaceae (nettle relatives), including olonā (Touchardia latifolia), ōpuhe (Urera spp.), and ʻākōlea (Boehmeria grandis). You can see photos of these plants here curtesy of the UH Pulelehua Project.
Native Koa Tree
Another important plant for pulelehua is the Koa tree, Acacia koa,which is a host plant to the larval stage of the Hawaiian Blue Butterfly. A common fast growing endemic tree, reaching 50-80 feet with a spread of 20-40 feet.
Native Koa can be found with two types of leaves; first the typical Fabaceae family bipinnately compound leaves of juvenile Koa trees, that morph to a silvery green sickle-shaped leaf with maturity.
After morphing and leaving the cocoon, adult pulelehua instinctively return to the same Koa tree tops as their ancestors. They eat the sap of the Koa tree and interestingly, when bacteria ferments the sap of the tree, pulelehua get drunk and males will “fight” with each other (www.hawaiianforest.com).
Habitat Loss & the Pulelehua Project
There is no recorded status of any of these natives being endangered, however, the Kamehameha butterfly specifically, has been seen less and less. There is a lack of survey evidence to provide any population records, however it is believed that due to loss of habitat and possibly parasitism, the state butterfly’s population may be in decline.
The Pulelehua Projectasks for pictures of sightings and locations, if you see the Kamehameha Butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) and wish to contribute to their efforts documenting location and collecting population data.
Thank you for taking the time to learn a little about the native Hawaiian alternative to crown flower trees and Monarch butterflies. Butterflies are beautiful creatures and we are very fortunate to have two kinds of butterflies found nowhere else in the world. I hope you choose to help perpetuate our unique native butterflies and their respective host plants.
The Butterfly Society of Hawaii has more information and photos of our native and also non-native butterflies found in Hawaii and their host plants. We at Seascapes love our pollinators, and encourage everyone to create a pollinator havens in your garden!
This article was written by Holly, Senior Sales Associate at Seascapes Nursery.
Edited by Serina Marchi, General Manager.
Butterfly Photo credit to Google.com images. Plants PC Kauai Seascapes Nursery, Inc.