Ever wondered how Hawaii’s rich variety of native flora has captured the hearts of both visitors and locals? We will uncover the details of the lush and vibrant world of Hawaii native plants.
From the rarest of endemic species to the hardy indigenous plants. They all play a vital role in the Hawaiian ecosystem, providing habitat for wildlife, preventing soil erosion, and even purifying the air we breathe.
No worries; we won’t bore you with the sciencey bits. Instead, you can join us on a journey to discover what it is that makes these plants so fascinating and the unique stories behind them.
History Of Hawaii Native Plants
Hawaii-native plants are not the average shrubs and trees you would find in your backyard. They have evolved in isolation thousands of miles away from any other landmass.
And that’s where the mystery starts: how did they get there? Scientists believe that the first plants arrived on the islands by wind, water, or via the stomach of migratory birds.
After a while, these endemic plants have adapted to their new environment developing unique characteristics to help them thrive in Hawaii’s volcanic soil and tropical climate.
These plants have been around for millions of years and survived the likes of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and even the arrival of humans on the islands!
However, since the arrival of humans, many of these plants have faced threats from habitat destruction, invasive species, and climate change. Despite all of these challenges, Hawaiian native plants play an integral part in Hawaiian culture.
For centuries, Hawaiians have used plants for medicinal purposes, food, and even clothing. The plants are deeply intertwined with Hawaiian traditions and beliefs, and they continue to play an important role in Hawaiian culture today.
So let’s take a look at some of these plants and see what all the hype is about!
Types Of Hawaii Native Plants
Hawaiian native plants fall into two categories. First is Endemic which is only found in Hawaii and nowhere else in the world.
The other is the Indigenous species which are plants that are native to Hawaii but can also be found in other areas of the globe. These plants likely arrived in Hawaii through natural means such as wind or ocean currents.
1. Ohi a lehua (Metrosidero polymorpha)
This is one of the most iconic Hawaiian native plants and is easily recognized by its vibrant red flowers, which bloom vigorously in the spring and summer months.
The evergreen tree can reach a whopping 80 feet tall and is found on all of the main islands of Hawaii.
The Ohi a lehua plays a crucial role in the rainforest’s ecosystem by providing food and habitat for many native species.
Additionally, Ohi a lehua wood is harvested for making canoes, spears, and other tools, and its flowers are used in lei making and other cultural practices.
Unfortunately, this tree is under threat from a fungal disease known as Ohia Death, which is devastating populations of this important tree throughout the Hawaiian islands.
2. Silversword (Argyroxiphium spp.)
This remarkable plant is only found on the slopes of Haleakala and Mauna Kea on the islands of Maui and Hawaii, respectively.
The distinctive rosette of silver-green leaves is what gives it its name, while this plant produces impressively tall purple flowers that bloom once in their lifetime.
The negative effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species have left this plant vulnerable, and conservation efforts are underway to protect this iconic species.
What makes this plant so remarkable is that it has adapted to the harsh alpine environment by developing a dense covering of fine hairs that insulate it from the cold and intense sunlight.
This plant has been a popular subject for photographers and hikers who are drawn to its unworldly appearance, and it also holds huge cultural significance to the Hawaiian people. Hawaiian
3. Sandalwood (Santalum ellipticum)
This rare and highly valued tree can grow up to 40 feet tall and is known for its dark brown to black heartwood. Hawaiian Sandalwood holds a strong aroma and is prized for its use in perfumes, incense, and other fragrant products.
Hawaiian people have used the wood for centuries in ceremonial and medicinal practices making it an important cultural resource.
Overharvesting and habitat wrecking have led to a decline in the wild population of Hawaiian Sandalwood, and it is now listed as an endangered species.
Protection and restoration procedures are underway to maintain this valuable resource for future generations.
4. Hala (Pandanus tectorius)
Hala is a tree that is native to the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. The long spiny leaves that are often used to create beautiful and intricate lei make the Hala a cultural symbol of Hawaii.
Hala trees are found in coastal regions and are adapted to tolerate salt spray and high winds.
They grow up to 30 feet tall and have a unique aerial root system that helps them anchor to the ground in the sandy soils. Because of the long leaves, they are often used in traditional weaving practices where Hawaiians make mats, baskets, hats, and other items.
These trees also produce a fruit that is also edible and traditionally used for medicinal purposes.
5. Loulo (Pritchardia spp.)
This is thought to be the only palm genus that is endemic to the islands. The Loulu palm boasts a stout trunk with long arching leaves that can grow up to 15 feet in length.
One of the features of this tree is that it produces large edible fruits that are eaten by many native birds and were also used by early Hawaiians to make a sweet fruity fermented beverage.
For this reason, the Loulu palm is an essential part of the Hawaiian culture and an ecological resource for the Hawaiian people. Many people also grow the palm as an ornamental plant.
Unfortunately, the species of Loulu palms are now endangered because of habitat loss and degradation. There are efforts made to conserve this species and replenish these renowned trees.
6. Noni (Morinda citrifolia)
This small evergreen tree is native to South East Asia and Australasia and is also found in Hawaii. The Noni tree produces a knobby fruit that is around the size of a potato and has a strong odor that is often described as unpleasant.
Despite its odor, the Noni fruit has been used traditionally for medicinal purposes by various cultures for centuries.
It is believed that the Noni fruit has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties and is used to treat ailments such as arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
The bark and the leaves of the Noni tree were used by early Hawaiians for making and dyeing clothing.
7. Kukui (Aleurites moluccanus)
Kukui originates from the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. The tree displays glossy green leaves and produces a hard-shelled nut that is highly valuable for its oil.
Kukui oil is used in many traditional Hawaiian practices, such as lomi lomi massage and the making of leis.
Hawaiians often use the nuts to light lamps and torches. What makes this tree so impressive is that it stands up to 80 feet tall and has a spreading canopy that provides shade and shelter for many native species.
It has adapted well to the Hawaiian climate, but unfortunately, it has started to face threats from loss of habitat and destruction. Conservation and protection are now being made to restore this valuable species.
8. Kalo (Colocasia esculenta)
Commonly known as taro, this plant has been cultivated in Hawaii for over a thousand years. The large leaves can grow up to 6 feet tall and are mostly found in wetlands and flooded fields.
Kalo has an edible root that is an important staple in Hawaiian cuisine, and the particular dish called poi is made using this starchy root.
The leaves of the Kalo plant are also edible and use to make laulau, a popular Hawaiian dish of pork fish or chicken wrapped in taro leaves and steamed.
Kalo has cultural and spiritual significance in Hawaiian culture and is believed to be the ancestor of the Hawaiian people.
9. Ti (Cordyline fruticosa)
This tropical evergreen is a native of South East Asia and is also found in Hawaii. It is grown as an ornamental plant due to its vibrant foliage that ranges in color from green to red, pink, and yellow.
The ti plant leaves are used in traditional practices such as hula dancing lei making and wrapping food for steaming. This drought-tolerant plant can grow up to 10 feet tall and has a branching habit with multiple stems shooting from the base.
It has adapted to grow in a range of soil types and is now cultivated around the world to use as a landscaping plant.
Overall, the journey through the magical world of Hawaii native plants has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. These plants have managed to weave their way into Hawaiian culture and life on the islands.
As the backbone of Hawaii’s biodiversity, they can survive in such a fragile ecosystem which speaks volumes about their tenacity. From using these plants as a food source to harvesting the wood for canoes, there is no wonder the Hawaiian people have such a connection with what grows on their land.
Conservation of these plants is now more important than ever, and whether you are a visitor to the islands or live among these plants, steps should be taken to protect their life for years to come.