Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photo by Melissa Chimera
Some of Maui’s strangest flowers bloom in winter—though witnessing these living curiosities requires some effort and a sharp eye. Cyanea macrostegia grows deep in the island’s most pristine rainforests. It resembles a miniature, floppy-leafed palm. Its leaves are rugose (wrinkly) and fuzzy, says research biologist Art Medeiros. “When you touch them, they feel like a peach.” Even the flowers have some fuzz. At the onset of winter, dark purple buds emerge from the plant’s main stalk, crowding the base of its leaves. Hairy and slender, these tarantula-like buds unfurl to reveal pale pink starbursts.
Hawaiians call this plant hāhā, a name that refers to the entire Cyanea genus. Cyaneas are all a little odd, ranging from small shrubs whose leaves are pockmarked with spines (a rarity in Hawaiian species) to spindly thirty-foot-tall trees that dangle chandelier-like inflorescences. Sadly, many hāhā are extinct. They are the canaries, the first plants to disappear when feral pigs or other exotic species invade the native forest.
This particular hāhā is endemic to Maui, it exists nowhere else on Earth. It provides critical habitat for other rare species. Hawaiian picture-wing flies lay eggs on the plant’s leaves, and adults can often be seen congregating at the flowers. C. macrostegia once populated deep, wooded ravines in Waihe‘e and densely forested hills in Olinda. Today the plant can be spotted growing in the Waikamoi cloud forest, and beside the boardwalk in Pu‘u Kukui Watershed Preserve. To visit, join a guided hike or volunteer with EastMauiWatershed.org. or PuuKukui.org.
You can also enjoy hāhā flowers in a painting by artist Melissa Chimera, who photographed this specimen as part of her research. The piece features a mandala of rare Hawaiian butterflies and flowers. Chimera’s pale blue butterfly wings find their perfect complement in the hāhā blossoms’ dark velvet.