Milo: A Truly Hawaiian Tree
Growing green will feature another Hawaiian tree this month. Unlike Kukui which has a number of medicinal and soft wood uses this tree has a valuable hard wood. Milo (Thespesia populnea) is a classic coastal and low land tree throughout the Pacific. In Hawaii we see it in parks, school grounds, other community areas, and naturalized along the ocean.
Milo is one of the many plants which came with the native Hawaiians to these islands. Being indigenous to the pacific it is adapted to the common coastal stresses such as wind, full sun exposure, and sea spray. The Hawaiians planted this tree extensively for its wood and stature which creates an inviting space at the beach.
Written by an early missionary of Milo: “It was planted about the houses of the al'i, as is well remembered around that of Kamehameha the Great at Waikiki." Then, as well as now Milo has created 'umeke or wooden calabashes of the highest quality. Many of these calabashes were so cared for they were named and passed down for generations. It was also used in making dye and a simple cordage. Interestingly it was kukui nut oil that was used to oil these calabashes.
Milo is a medium sized tree in the Hibiscus family (Malvaceae) 10-50 feet tall with a wide range of growing characteristics. Milo can be seen as a large sprawling shrub with its main stem nearly prostrate on the ground or as a stately specimen planting. This style of growth is one of Milo's strengths as well as what can make it hard to control.
Few trees allow the grower the ability to utilize multiple main stems or branches the way Milo does. For example Norfolk Island Pine has one main stem, if you cut this top it will produce a multiple number of tops which will be structurally compromised as they become larger and larger which will need to be removed or will more than likely fail. Milo on the other hand can have a number of main stems from the ground level all taking different angles of growth. This becomes useful in the case of a windbreak tree under 30 feet or when you want to harvest a portion of the tree without cutting the whole tree down.
The second style of growth mentioned is the single trunk with a bell shaped canopy. This is what is commonly found in the parks and around the house as it allows a shaded area below the tree to enjoy. Milo is a fast growing tree, often attaining the height of 10-15 feet in 3-4 years. The flower is yellow in the morning fading through the day to a light red. They are one day hibiscus like flowers. The seed pods that arise from the pollinated flowers are abundant even on a young tree which makes propagation usually easy.
I like to propagate Milo the same way as Kukui. I take the mature seed pods which are dark brown not green and smash the pod up with my hands leaving the seeds exposed. Then I use standard bagged potting soil and a seed flat. Put about an inch of potting soil in the flat, lay the seeds down on the soil, and cover the seeds with another inch of potting soil. Keep the soil moist and within 1-3 months you will have small Milo trees.
Using the right tree in the right place is important. Due to its fast growth and medium size, Milo might overwhelm a small space. Also the leaf litter and constant rain of seed pods might be too much for some people in tight areas like patios and decks. Understanding these characteristics ahead of time will help you decide if Milo is right for that space.
Milo is one of my favorite trees. Due to its ability to be pruned extensively I have found many uses for this tree at my nursery. It also has a slightly poisonous nature which makes it resistant to a wide range of pests and pathogens. This is a nice trait in horticulture, but it is also something to be aware of. The properties of the wood are for another article, but it is of the highest quality. I feel Milo wood could be one of Molokai's high end sustainable resources which could be exported as "Made in Molokai".
Growing green is written by Fred Richardson/ Botanist, Owner of Molokai Nei Organics a Nursery and Landscaping company, 558-8215.