The generic name Pleomele is derived from the Greek pleon, many, and melon, apple, in reference to the large inflorescence that produce many fruits. The specific epithet auwahiensis refers to Auwahi, Maui, a remnant native dry forest set aside to preserve native flora of Maui. This hala pepe is among numerous native plants, many endangered, found there.
The Hawaiian name hala pepe, pēpē meaning baby, apparently means “baby hala,” and is most likely named for its likeness to hala. One source uses halapepe (one word) for this species, whereas it is generally referred to as hala pepe, a two word name. There are six endemic species of hala pepe (Pleomele spp.). Some of the most distinctive features among the Hawaiian species of hala pepe are found in leaf length, width and shape, and in the characteristic perianth, the portion of the flower that has petals and sepals (tepals). The soft whitish to reddish wood was used by early Hawaiians to make idols (kiʻi) and to decorate altars. Early Hawaiians used the leaves in bathing and steam baths for chills (liʻa), headaches, fever, and thought to stop burning temperature or sensation. Leaves and flowers are used in lei making.