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The native ‘ōhiʻa lehua grow on many KS sites, most prominently at our Keaʻau campus.

Kūkahekahe: Native Hawaiian Plant Month

April 5, 2022

In this Kūkahekahe, we celebrate our lāʻau kamaʻāina, our Native Hawaiian Plants! Let’s use this month to show aloha to the plants that have helped to shape our islands into Hawaiʻi!

‘O ʻApelila ka Mahina Lāʻau Kamaʻāina – April is Native Hawaiian Plant Month! This is the ideal time to educate ourselves about these special plants, why they’re important, how they’ve been affected by human and environmental changes, and what we can do to mālama them.

What are Native Hawaiian plants?
Native plant species reached Hawaiʻi millennia ago via one of three means: wind, waves, or wings (in bird feathers or droppings). For example, the fruit of a coastal plant like naupaka kahakai might float on the ocean currents and happen to reach the shores of our pae ʻāina (archipelago). And once that seed, fruit, or spore arrived in Hawaiʻi, it could grow and develop in relative isolation. Some native plants are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. A plant species can be endemic to Hawaiʻi as a whole, to a specific island, or even to a single valley or ridgeline.

Native Hawaiian plants in danger
Hawaiʻi has the heartbreaking distinction of being the extinction capital of the world. Of approximately 1400 native plant species, almost 90% are endemic. And over 250 species are endangered, with only 50 or fewer plants remaining. This is considered an extinction crisis!

Many of our native plants evolved to share symbiotic relationships with animals in the same ecosystem. For example, māmane trees and shrubs grow on the slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Endemic honeycreepers called palila live in the māmane forests and use their strong, blunt bills to open juvenile pods and eat the seeds within. After consuming māmane seeds, palila spread them throughout the habitat, which keeps the forest thriving. If either of these species becomes endangered, its kōkoʻolua (partner) is likely in peril too. In fact, both māmane and palila are endangered. Factors like climate change, invasive species, and decline in pollinators have adversely affected māmane.

Sometimes it is human behavior that negatively affects Native Hawaiian plants. In the late 1700s, ʻiliahi (native sandalwood) became Hawaiʻi’s first major cash crop and export. An American privateer realized the tree whose heartwood Hawaiians used to perfume kapa was also highly prized in China. Thus began the lucrative and devastating ʻiliahi trade. Under the direction of some aliʻi, makaʻāinana abandoned other kuleana for the physically demanding task of harvesting ʻiliahi, and famine arose due to the neglected māla (gardens) and loko iʻa (fishponds). Kamehameha ʻEkahi established a monopoly on ʻiliahi trade, but later placed a kapu on young trees so the forest could begin to grow again. The kapu was lifted after his passing and trade continued. Within four decades, many ʻiliahi forests across the paeʻāina were decimated by the removal of several million trees. 

Helping Native Hawaiian plants thrive
In spite of these somber statistics, there is plenty of activity happening to protect Hawaiʻi’s endangered species. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa created the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP). Using tools and techniques like installing fences, propagating endangered plants in labs, and controlling invasive species populations, PEPP’s proactive efforts help to protect plants from a variety of threats. The Department of Land and Natural Resources developed a Rare Plant Code of Conduct, meant to minimize human impact – including agencies, programs, and plant enthusiasts – on endangered species.

Efforts to reforest ‘āina with native species happen within our own extended Kamehameha ʻohana. In the 1980s, the Polynesian Voyaging Society searched Hawaiʻi for koa tree large enough to build a waʻa kaulua (double-hulled voyaging canoe). However, due to deforestation there were no such trees found  at the time. But our indigenous family from Alaska generously gifted Hawaiʻi two Sitka spruce trees in 1990 that would become the waʻa kaulua, Hawaiʻiloa. Along with gratitude for this incredible makana, Hawaiʻi also made a commitment to reforest our land with native trees. Kamehameha Schools led over three decades of reforestation programs at Keawewai, Hawaiʻi. In our lifetimes, we are witnessing the regeneration of a native koa forest. Positive changes to our environment are possible if we all do our part and huli ka lima i lalo – turn our hands down to the ‘āina and learn to be good stewards.

E ka ʻohana Kamehameha – how will you celebrate Mahina Lāʻau Kamaʻāina?

To learn more about lāʻau kamaʻāina…

  • Check out Kaʻiwakīloumoku’s posts for Mahina Lāʻau Kamaʻāina on Instagram and Facebook throughout the month. We will also be sharing a public clip art library that includes drawings of native plants!
  • Want to give your yard a lāʻau kamaʻāina makeover? Beginning in June 2022, visit the Go Native Grower’s Guide from the Hawaiʻi Forest Institute to learn about reforesting your yard. The guide can help you learn which growing zone you’re in and determine some recommended plants.

Kamehameha Publishing offers books and resources about native species. Some favorite titles especially for keiki include “Kūkaukaʻi ka ʻApapane a me ka ‘Ōhiʻa” – The ‘Apapane and ‘Ōhiʻa are Interdependent, and “Kaukaʻi ka Puʻu Koa i ke Kumu Koa” – The Puʻu Koa Depends on the Koa Tree. These and other life science books from the Pāhana ‘Āina Lupulupa series are available in ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi and English.

In tandem with Mahina Lāʻau Kamaʻāina, ʻApelila 25 is also ‘Ōhiʻa Lehua Day, which recognizes an endemic tree that is essential to our native rainforests.

Kupukupu, or sword fern, is endemic to Hawaiʻi. Its name is a reduplication of the word kupu, meaning sprout, growth, offspring, or upstart which speaks to the way this fern can spread and thrive with relative ease.

Endemic honeycreepers called palila live in the native māmane forests and use their strong, blunt bills to open juvenile pods and eat the seeds within. After consuming māmane seeds, palila spread them throughout the habitat, which keeps the forest thriving.

kūkahekahe,native hawaiian plant month

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