Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Hawaii Gardens
Wild poinsettia is related to coffee

By Heidi Bornhorst

Warscewiczia is a very attractive plant that we don’t see enough in Hawaii gardens. It has brilliant red bracts (the leaf-like plant parts, often brightly colored, that usually appear below the actual flower). You might guess that it would be related to poinsettias, the Christmas flower.

If you want to be inspired by its beauty and family relations, visit the Lyon Arboretum in the back of Manoa Valley. Go past Paradise Park, pass the turnoff for Manoa Cliffs trail and keep heading up the hill. The planting is not too far into the garden. Just ask one of the garden’s volunteers for directions.

Another place to see this plant is on the UH-Manoa campus, at the St. John Plant Science building on the makai side. Noted horticulture professor Richard Criley said that it was originally planted by tropical fruit specialist Dr. Richard Hamilton in honor of Dr. Joseph Keeler. According to Criley, Keeler was one of the first people to see that Hawaii needed diversified agriculture with the demise of sugar cane.

The plant is also growing in the city’s Wahiawa Botanical Garden, one of the gardens where I work. You have to take a small hike to get to it. The main part of Wahiawa Botanical Garden is a long narrow gulch. Walk up this gulch until you get to a large buttress-rooted ficus (banyan tree). Head up the log-lined trail to the Kuraoka terrace. Many awesome plants are found here: the Lady Empress tree, Amherstia nobilis, rare hibiscus from Norfolk Island, a species gardenia collection, magenta-flowered eucalyptus, clove and, up near the fence, a tall and impressive stand of the warscewiczia.

The complete Latin name is Warscewiczia coccinea. It is related to gardenia and coffee and is in the Rubiaceae plant family. One of its cousins is one of the most fabulous ornamental plants to ever come out of the Philippines, mussaenda. Like warscewiczia, mussaenda has brilliantly colored bracts that look like a flower at a glance.

A closer look at both plants reveals their true nature. They have big, showy, colorful bracts that we (and the pollinating birds or insects) see at first. The actual flower is small and is hidden amidst the bracts.

Plants have great strategies for getting their flowers pollinated, so that they can make seeds and thus more plants. By "hiding" the true flower amid the bright and showy bracts, the insect is attracted to the brightness just like us and then must search for the reward of pollen or nectar in the true flower.

Warscewiczia is a mouthful, and one common name for it is wild poinsettia. You can easily see how it got this name. There are single-flowered wild types and double-flowered cultivars developed by horticulturists. According to Criley, this plant is not drought-tolerant.

It also needs protection from wind. Hamilton found that you can grow the double-flowered form from seeds and you can also graft the more desirable double form onto a single form rootstock.

Warscewiczia was brought to the Islands from tropical America. If you would like one, check with a nursery or garden shop. You can also ask horticulturists at Lyon Arboretum to propagate one for you. Sales of plants specially grown from the garden help support the arboretum.

Heidi Bornhorst is director of the city’s botanical gardens. Write her care of The Advertiser Island Life section, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Or e-mail her at

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