Pukiawe, a small shrub usually less than 4 feet tall, thrives on the loose, dry cinder soils around the Visitor Information Station up to about 11,000 feet elevation on Mauna Kea. It is a food source for the Hawaii state bird, the nene.
The small red, white or reddish white berries are not edible by humans, but they are sometimes collected and strung into leis. In ancient times Hawaiians crushed the berries to make a dye for tapa cloth, and also sometimes used the leaves to treat headaches and colds. Hawaiian ali'i, or royalty, sometimes made small fires of dried pukiawe branches and leaves. It was believed that bathing in the smoke of a Pukiawe fire would cloak the mana of the ali'i, and allow him to move freely amongst commoners.
As you are driving from the Visitor Information Station (VIS) up towards the summit of Mauna Kea, Pukiawe is one of the last plants that you will see near the upper limits of vegetation on the mountain.