Mamaki (Pipturus albidus)
Mamaki is a plant which is Endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, which means that this is the only place in the world that it grows naturally.
You'd never know it by looking at it, but it is in-fact a member of the Nettle family. Over the course of thousands of years of isolation and evolution, this plant has lost all of its stingers, and today is known distinctive deep red veins in its leaves.
It is found across the entire Hawaiian island chain from Kauai down to the Big Island of Hawaii and enjoys an elevation of between about 400ft. all the way up to over 6000 ft.
One of our favorite places to go and see Mamaki growing wildly is on the slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island.
Generally classified as a shrub, in most home gardens it will not grow larger than about 10ft., but in the wild, we have climbed around in Mamaki Trees that were taller than 25ft!
This amazing plant is an important understory shrub that does well growing in dappled sunlight. In the spring time, tiny white fruits appear along the stems that feed countless native Hawaiian bird species including the apapane and amakihi birds.
Mamaki Plant- A history
Native Hawaiian peoples have a close bond to the Mamaki plant as their histories have been intertwined for hundreds of years.
Mamaki fruits are small white clusters that appear along the stems in springtime. This fruit, because it is so mild and palatable, was often times used as one of the first foods given to young children who were just being weaned off their mothers. The fruit is soft and easily falls apart inside the mouth even without teeth.
The fresh leaves of the plant were commonly added to soups and other dishes and enjoyed as many people enjoy kale or collard greens today. The leaves are packed full of anti-oxidants and so offer a very healthy dietary supplement.
Hawaiian herbalists have known of the power of Mamaki for a long time, and other applications include the use of the roots and bark for medicinal purposes.
The most popular use of this plant in historical times as well as modern times, is as an herbal tea.
The leaves, when steeped or even boiled release a tasty and refreshing elixir that is very similar to an Oolong tea. It is light, subtle and refreshing.
If you travel the islands you will see lots of examples of Mamaki Tea, it is popular and everyone seems to put their own spin on it, but it is know well here. Step outside of Hawaii though, and the first thing someone says when you mention it is "Mama- what?"
How to Propagate and Grow Mamaki
Mamaki is naturally found as an understory plant, and although it can be found growing in full sun, its good to note that this is more commonly found of cultivated fields rather than wild plants.
There are 3 main ways you can propagate Mamaki plants:
1.You can sprout new plants from seeds found in the fruit
2. You can take a cutting from an existing plant. When doing this, use a stem section that is slightly woody. If you try to use fresh growth, the stem will wilt and die before it has the time to grow new roots, and if you use a section of stem that is too old and too woody, it will never sprout roots or new leaves.
3. You can take an air-layering from an existing branch. Air layering can be googled to understand the process better, but essentially, you a re cutting into a branch about 3 inches long and in that 3 inch long cut only going about 50% of the way through the stem. You then add soil, wrap this with moss or something else to hold moisture and then wrapping all of that in plastic wrap to keep the moisture from escaping.
Once you have your new Mamaki plants, it is good to give them only partial sun while they are young, again, this is how they naturally grow in nature and it gives them the best start at their new life.
As they grow taller and become 1ft -2ft tall, you can plant them out in a position that gets full sun or choose a spot that gets partial sun.
Picking Mamaki Tea
When your plants have matured and it becomes apparent that by picking some leaves you will not be doing harm to the plant, the best way to do this without damaging the plant is to keep your trimmings to about 6" to a foot in length at the most, and if your plants are still under 4ft tall, keep your pickings ever smaller than that.
The great thing about Mamaki is that you get many flushes of leaves each year and are able to harvest increasing quantities over time, as your plants get taller.
Most Big Island Mamaki Tea farmers get 4-6 flushes each year and a few have mentioned even more than that!
Drying Mamaki Tea
Once you have your first harvest of Mamaki leaves, you can make fresh tea right from the freshly picked leaves, but most of us don't want to make all the tea right now, and would prefer to store it.
Our recommendation is to first rinse your leaves of any insects or debris first. Next, we like to separate the leaves from the stems at this point to avoid that work later on, but many farmers just go straight to the drying process.
If you try to air dry your leaves either on a lanai or in your own kitchen, you will find that they will dry out just fine and can be stored after they are fully dry, but two things generally happen:
In Hawaii, our relative humidity is high on a daily average, like above 60%, so by drying your Mamaki leaves this way, you will find it challenging to find the perfect timing when they are fully dried and no more moisture in them. Each night could re-moisten leaves that were nearly dry just hours ago.
Secondly, once dried, the leaves generally look more gray to black in color and don't have that beautiful sage green color generally associated with Mamaki leaves. So, without going into it any further, we do not recommend this method for these reasons.
The best way to dry your Mamaki leaves is to use a dehydrator or a solar dryer. Dehydrators are most common and easy to get a hold of, so we'll discuss this method, but if you have access to a solar dryer, definitely give that a go!
By using a dehydrator, you are able to quickly get all the moisture evenly out of the leaves and then you can crush and store your tea in an air proof container. We try to only harvest as much Mamaki as we can process in that day and the following day, no more.
Mamaki Tea Benefits
Mamaki Tea is a healthy, caffiene free, herbal tea that is very tasty to drink.
One of the best known benefits of Mamaki Tea are that it is high in anti-oxidants. Many of the same anti-oxidants found in green tea and other "superfoods" can be found in Mamaki Tea as well.
Another great attribute is that a lot of people claim it helps to reduce high blood pressure, and there is beginning to be a lot of studies and literature that is backing up this age-old claim with real science.
It's Caffeine free, so its a really wonderful tea for people who are either caffeine sensitive or trying to avoid it all together can enjoy and make wonderful tea blends out of.
Lastly, it is one of Hawaii's truly unique plants, and growing it in your garden and enjoying it in you glass continues a tradition of supporting endemic plants, Hawaiian culture and it ensures that there will be plenty of these important plants around for all the native bird species that rely on it as well.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed our post all about this wonderful plant!