Ugly, but Sweet
The Small-Flowered Nothocestrum, today’s Endangered All-Star, has been termed the homeliest of all Hawai’i’s spectacular plants. Noted botanist Joseph Rock called them, “the most ugly trees which the Hawaiian Islands possess.” But the tree bears a tiny, intensely sweet, jasmine-scented flower that sends its fragrance far afield, tempting travelers and an endangered species of moth alike, Blackburn’s Sphinx Moth, the largest native moth in the islands. The moth’s tongue is uniquely adapted to sip nectar from the tubular flowers of Nothocestrum, and the insect and its larvae eat the buds and leaves.
Ten populations of the tree survive on the Big Island but are threatened by cattle, pigs, rats, and invasive plants such as fountain grass, which dries out and triggers damaging fires. Some populations are near resort areas, exposed to trampling by people. According to the Center for Plant Conservation, Nothocestrum breviflorum trees are being restored at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
Photo: Peter Van Dyke