Plant of the Month: Hawaiian snow bush adds wintry feel to the season

  • The light colored leaves that crown the Hawaiian snow bush can often give the impression of a snowy crown. (Photo courtesy / Kim & Forest Starr)
  • The tiny dark colored flowers of the snow bush appear on the underside of a stem but are not usually noticed. (Photo courtesy / toptropicals.com)
  • The red stems and color range in the snow bush’s foliage create an appealing visual for a tropical garden. (Photo courtesy / YouTube)

Visitors are often surprised to learn that we have a snow capped mountain here on the Big Island in winter. We delight in telling tales of locals hauling pickup trucks full of snow to the beach for a snowball fight. Most of us, who live at lower elevations, enjoy our warm weather year round but may choose to add snow to our lives by selecting shrubs that imitate snow in appearance. Several are in the genus euphorbia.

The name snow-on-the-mountain identifies two different euphorbia species. Euphorbia leucocephala, sometimes known as flor-de-nino produces a mass of tiny white flowers this time of year. Since it blooms at the same time as the Christmas poinsettia, they make a wonderful winter display when grown together.

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Eurphorbia marginata is an annual spurge that is also commonly known as snow on the mountain. It is much less popular here though it can be grown as a nice addition to a small garden. Its green leaves, rimmed in bright white and topped with delicate white flowers, give it the appearance of being snow covered.

Another snowy eurphorbia genus shrub is Breynia disticha, known locally as Hawaiian snow bush. The roseapicta variety is definitely the most popular. Often used here as a hedge plant, this shrub has lower leaves in deep green with upper leaves sporting deep red to light pink and the plant is topped with white leaves that appear like a dusting of snow. The multiple colors of this lovely specimen are encouraged by planting in full sun.

The snow bush is native to Vanuatu and New Caledonia in the South Pacific but was being grown in Honolulu as early as 1890. By 1917 it had become one of the most popular hedging plants on Oahu and it became known there by its Hawaiian name, laukalakoa. The name refers to its many colored leaves and derives from the Hawaiian word for leaves and the English word calico.

The botanical name Breynia honors a Polish man and his son. The Breynes authored books on rare plants in the late 1600s. The species name disticha is a Latin word that describes the zigzag growth pattern of the gracefully arching branches of this plant.

The colorful foliage of the snow bush continues to popularize it worldwide. In temperate climates it is often grown indoors as a house plant. Throughout the tropics it does well as an outdoor shrub in a colorful grouping or as a single specimen planted in the ground or in a pot. It will usually determine around 10 feet tall.

The multicolored leaves make up for the lackluster tiny brown flowers it produces on the underside of lower stems. With few viable seeds produced, this plant is best propagated by cuttings or by relocating root shoots. The shoots that emerge from the roots can fill in a hedge quickly and easily but may require a bit of attention to keep them from emerging in unwanted locations.

The best location for snow bush is in fertile soil that has a full sun exposure most of the day. If your garden is near the ocean, plant snow bush where it will not get salt spray. It does well in salt free locations and grows well with regular watering.

Snow bush requires very little maintenance. Occasional pruning to control size and shape will also encourage new shoots and keep the plant compact. It is rarely attacked by pests or diseases though Chinese rose beetles and mites may attack stressed plants. Light fertilizing several times a year with a well-balanced product will help the plant to thrive.

Snow bush provides a colorful addition to any landscape. Since it often appears in local gardens, you might look for one in your neighborhood and ask for cuttings. Most garden shops in West Hawaii carry the plant if you can’t find a source for cuttings.

Don’t let the snow bush’s popularity discourage you from using it in your garden. Its unique coloration makes it an attractive specimen everywhere it is grown.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.

Gardening Events

Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets

Wednesday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea

“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at the Waimea Middle and Elementary School Playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

“Hamakua Harvest” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honokaa

Plant Advice Lines

Anytime: konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu

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Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4893

Mondays and Fridays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo 981-5199 or himga@hawaii.edu