Mamaki was in Hawaii long before tea and coffee arrived in the 1800s, but only recently has it become a contender for a place in the beverage aisle.

Iced or hot, the dried leaves of this endemic shrub have been increasingly making their way into products across the country. It’s caffeine-free and has been compared to green tea for its therapeutic qualities.

More mamaki-focused farms have emerged, leading to more mamaki tea products. But not everyone is pleased by the boom of this native plant and those who are benefiting from its growing popularity. Mamaki is steeped in Hawaiian history and culture.

Over the past six years, Hilo company Shaka Tea has taken iced mamaki tea blends across the United States and to Japan and anticipates it becoming one of Hawaii’s biggest export crops.

The variety of conditions across the islands where Mamaki is grown can influence its flavor. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized the plant’s commercial potential too, awarding the University of Hawaii a $55,000 specialty block grant to assess different varieties and expand access to greater-yielding plants for interested growers.

‘Quality Of Life Comforts’

Tea aficionados would be right to say mamaki tea is not actually tea, which comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Rather it’s tisane – herbal tea. The plant, pipturus albidus, sits in the nettle family and has relatives growing in other areas of the Pacific but is unique to Hawaii.

According to ethnobotanist Katie Kamelamela, the tree was of great utility for Hawaii’s first settlers, the Kanaka Maoli, providing fiber, food and medicine.

Mamaki has been utilized for hundreds of years by Native Hawaiians for its fibers, for cloth, and its therapeutic benefits. Courtesy: Dino Morrow Photography/Shaka Tea

“Contemporarily known for its leaves and use as a tea, historically its abundance was connected to clothing, warmth, and foundation (for) quality of life comforts,” said Kamelamela, who works for Akaka Foundation For Tropical Forests.

Mamaki’s inner bark was mixed with sap for kapa, cloth, as were breadfruit and banana plants. Its black seed-flecked fruit also had medicinal properties used for healing sores and as a mild laxative.

Its increasingly prized, broad and commonly red-veined leaves are now mostly steeped dried or fresh in hot water, like tea.

Mamaki On The Menu

Historically, mamaki was harvested in its natural habitat. The plant grew on the fringes of native forests at elevations of between 1,500 and 4,000 feet throughout Hawaii.

And while each island might have an influence on the mamaki’s flavor, similar to wine grapes grown in different areas of the world, the nutritional content is consistently better than most conventional tea, according to a 2009 University of Hawaii study.

The study found that mamaki leaves harvested in summer contained more ash, protein, fat and total fiber when compared with commercial, conventional teas. But the most notable advantage for mamaki was a high level of calcium.

Given the strong market for herbal teas, worth $401 million last year worldwide, mamaki provides farmers with a promising crop for a well-established market.

“We’re getting to a point where we can put mamaki on the menus at restaurants.” — Byron Goo, Tea Chest Hawaii

Several farms around the state are growing mamaki to feed the emerging industry. And it fetches a good price, according to Tea Chest Hawaii owner Byron Goo.

At the moment, the going rate for dry mamaki varies from $150 to over $200 per pound retail, Goo says. By contrast, the global market makes conventional teas a far cheaper commodity at between $50 and $100 per pound, he said.

Meanwhile, 100% Kona coffee lingers around $50 per pound.

Tea Chest Hawaii is researching and developing more mamaki products as demand for locally grown and uniquely Hawaiian goods rises.

“We’re getting to a point where we can put mamaki on the menus at restaurants,” Goo said.

Pouring Into The Market

Perhaps the most visible mamaki-based brand is Shaka Tea, which is selling its mamaki and fruit-blended teas in 8,000 stores in the U.S. and Japan, according to Shaka president and co-founder Bella Hughes.

“By the end of this year, nationally, we should be in 20,000,” said Hughes, who was born and raised in Hawaii.

big island locator badgeShaka dries and processes the leaves in Hilo, then sends them to the mainland for final processing. More than 20 Big Island farmers supply the company.

“We put six figures last year directly in the hands of small farmers,” Hughes said. “And we’re definitely on a growth trajectory that within the next four years, we should be putting seven figures directly in the hands of small farming partners.”

Hughes said she believes mamaki could become one of Hawaii’s top export crops by the end of the decade.

California company King’s Hawaiian gave mamaki the ultimate vote of confidence last week: It purchased Shaka Tea.

King’s, which also started in Hilo and is best known for its sweet bread, has been a key investor and adviser for the company, Pacific Business News reported.

From 2017 to 2019 Shaka grew by 404%, while Hughes told PBN it experienced 500% year-over-year growth in 2021 compared to 2020.

Strengthening The Brew

Matt Drayer and his wife Andrea take care of 8,000 mamaki trees on the 25 acres of land they manage in Ka‘u on the Big Island — the largest mamaki farm in Hawaii. He is Shaka Tea’s largest supplier, and Shaka takes virtually his entire harvest.

Mamaki is naturally a companion plant, so grows well with others. Drayer’s mamaki is interspersed with nitrogen-fixing plants such as perennial peanut, naturium, marigold and teosante, the forebear of corn. More nitrogen collected from the atmosphere means healthier soil.

Drayer has been farming for about eight years in the area. But he has been on his current property, Ancient Valley Growers, for the past 18 months, fostering a regenerative environment for the plants using permaculture and Korean natural farming methods.

Shaka Tea Hawaii. Mamaki tea.
Shaka Tea was purchased last week by King’s Hawaiian. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Those methods mimic nature, keeping soils and plants healthy and ensuring the longevity of the land, Drayer says.

Drayer, who hails from California and is also president of the Hawaii Farmers Union United’s Ka’u chapter, values the land and its integrity and wants his future children to have security and healthy food at their fingertips.

Over the course of his time working closely with mamaki, Drayer has also found other potential uses for the plant, including a sap-like residue that he thinks could be used like pectin or a thickening agent.

“The fact that mamaki is getting popular is great,” Drayer said. “But for someone like me, it’s important to keep it from going extinct.”

Existential Threats?

Hawaii’s island chain is in the top three global hotbeds for alien species, despite being geographically isolated. The estimated cost of introduced threats to the state’s ecosystems and agriculture was $83 million from 2011 to 2015, according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

Orchards have to deal with the avocado lace bug and coffee farmers face the devastating effects of coffee berry borer and coffee leaf rust. Mamaki has its own nemeses.

A rust was discovered in mamaki in Kurtistown, south of Hilo, in 2013. Last February, larvae of ramie moth were discovered on mamaki on Maui and the Big Island.

The effects of both on a plant where leaves are especially prized could be devastating, as the rust can cause them to die and the larvae eat them.

“About two months ago, I found one plant that was covered in (eggs),” Drayer said. “I killed all of them.”

A flock of approximately 150 invasive myna birds that hang around his farm have helped control the larvae.

A Kamehameha butterfly on a mamaki plant. Courtesy: W. Haines

“The myna birds are like free labor,” Drayer said. “That’s happening because we provided an environment for them.”

UH extension agents also have been working to ensure that mamaki remains well populated in the wild.

Maintaining an abundance of mamaki was not just for commercial gain and posterity, however. The tree is loved by the state insect, the pulelehua butterfly, also known as the Kamehameha butterfly, whose caterpillars feed on the leaves.

Commerce Versus Culture

The therapeutic qualities of mamaki are akin to those of green tea, but there is a spiritual dimension to the plant for Kanaka Maoli. Its value in laau lapaau — a traditional form of healing using Hawaiian plants and herbs — is incalculable.

So commercial promise needs to be developed with cultural acuity, according to Sean Chun, a practitioner of laau lapaau.

Conversations about yields, profits and marketing of the mamaki belie the holistic Native Hawaiian relationship with the land, according to the Kauai practitioner.

“The land is the alii and we serve the land,” Chun said.

The fruit of mamaki has traditionally been used as a mild laxative. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Ethnobotanist Kamelamela says when it comes to commercializing Native Hawaiian practices, there should be a level of reciprocity and inclusion.

“It really boils down to intention and ethics for me on this,” Kamelamela said. “Especially a sustainable harvest practice that allows plants and resources to thrive.”

Mamaki producers are generally familiar with mamaki’s importance to laau lapaau, though the degree of engagement with the community varies widely.

Mamaki Native Hawaiian Herbal Tea, in Punaluu on Oahu, plans to eventually become an educational hub for laau lapaau, according to owner Roberta Taira.

Taira has studied the tradition and sees her work in farming mamaki, as well as other native medicinal plants, as a means to relieve the strain on the product in the wild – which she feels is being depleted by uninhibited stripping of natural resources by people who do not understand the plant’s significance.

“It’s ours, it’s the Hawaiian people’s, and we’re responsible for this plant,” Taira said. “Yes, it will generate income. But for me it’s like, if it does generate income and we pass this on to the next generation, they can live here.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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