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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 27, 2006

Plant crown flower for lasting lei, butterflies

By Heidi Bornhorst

Crown flower, originally from India, is called pua kalaunu in Hawaiian. It was a beloved and symbolic flower for ka ali'i nui Lili'uokalani.

The flowers look like what else? a crown. The purple variety arrived first, around 1871, followed by the white. Scientifically, they are called Calotropis gigantea and are in the Asclepiadaceae, or milkweed, family.

The long-lasting flowers are marvelous for lei, and of course once they made it to Hawai'i that's what happened. There are so many simple and complex ways to take the flowers apart and string them artistically together. They don't have a strong scent, and for some folk this is a joy.

My talented lei-making friend Nani Higashino lives in Napili, Maui, where the hot, sunny climate and sandy soil are perfect for growing pua kalaunu. The more sun you expose crown flower to, the more blooms you will receive. Her garden is full of crown flower, which she uses for her specialty lei.

Nani's crown flower lei is made using the base of the flower, packing them together to make a fat, gorgeous purple lei. Nani has given me two, making me feel honored and adored, for at least a month and the pictures last longer!

Rub lotion on your hands when you pick, pluck apart and string crown flower. The lotion protects the hands and lei needle from the flower's milky sap. When you pick them off the plant, wear a hat and safety goggles to protect your eyes from the sap.

Crown flowers are related to stephanotis or pua male (the "marry" flower) and wax vine or hoyas. They're also the favorite food plant of monarch butterfly caterpillars another reason to grow this tough, gorgeous plant.

As keiki, my sister and I loved to raise monarch butterflies. Our godfather, John Mossman, taught us how to make a special butterfly house out of old milk cartons. He told us to collect crown flower leaves to feed the caterpillars, but we didn't have a plant in our yard. This may be how my mom got to know all the nice ladies in Papakolea who grew crown flowers.

Crown flowers can be grown from cuttings, but they are not easy to start. We tried for years until my mentor at Foster Botanical Garden, Masa Yamauchi, gave me two plants, one purple and one white. A great horticulturist, Yamauchi had grown them from cuttings stuck in tin cans.

Today those plants flower prolifically in my parents' Makiki yard, though they don't have many monarchs the bulbul birds eat them.

CATERPILLAR KINDNESS

We planted some young crown flowers at the Hale Koa hotel, and every monarch butterfly in Waikiki descended on them. Soon, their caterpillars were munching voraciously on the plants. The leaves were all puka puka, and the plants looked battered. The young crown flowers were struggling to survive. Our gardener plucked them off but did not have the heart the squish them. "They are monarchs, I just cannot," he said.

Neither can I, ruthless as I try to be. I looked at the little yellow, black and white-striped caterpillars that the gardener had put in a jar with leaves. So cute, like little prison escapees. Then I thought, "Gee I ought to go visit my parents today. I can take these caterpillars up to their house and put them on the big old crown flower plants like "catch and release" fishermen do. So that's what I did. My mom and I had a great time putting the hungry caterpillars on fresh crown flower leaves to feed and turn into monarch butterflies.

After picking crown flowers, I made several lei, including one for my friend the writer, photographer and preservationist Nancy Bannick. We were about to attend a benefit dinner for Washington Place in the Monarch Room at The Royal Hawaiian hotel.

I made a lei pua kalaunu and presented it to her that evening. The next day, she called to thank me. "Did you open the ornament that was given to everyone last night?" she asked.

I opened the pretty brown box and inside was the symbolic ornament of Washington place a lei pua kalaunu. Chicken skin, I tell you!

Heidi Bornhorst is a sustainable-landscape consultant. Submit questions to islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com or Island Life, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Letters may be published or distributed in print, electronic or other forms.