Pōhuehue (beach morning glory), kupukupu (fishbone fern) and pōhinahina (beach vitex) are three native plants that are easily grown and maintained even if you don’t have a yard!
In early 2020, the month of April was designated Native Hawaiian Plant Month in Hawaiʻi. In the proclamation recognizing the month, Hawaiʻi’s people are urged to “recognize the importance and urgency of supporting the work being done to protect and cultivate the endangered and threatened species of these plants in the Hawaiian Islands.” This Kūkahekahe – Cultural Conversations – column is dedicated to exploring ways to mālama our lāʻau kamaʻāina, native Hawaiian plants!
Lāʻau kamaʻāina (native plants) are part of our ʻāina and significant to our lāhui. From the medicinal properties of the paʻū o Hiʻiaka (oval-leaf clustervine) which was named for the powerful skirt of Pele’s favorite sister to the gigantic Acacia koa trees that were used for waʻa, our lāʻau kamaʻāina were vital for our survival as island peoples.
Yet our home has the terrible distinction of being the extinction capital of the world: out of an estimated 1400 native plants, nearly 90% are endemic, found only in Hawaiʻi. More than 200 of these species have 50 or fewer plants remaining.
These statistics provide a stark picture that is in the landscapes we see most often; be it mauka or makai, our spaces are dominated by nonnative plants. It’s one of the reasons pineapples and plumerias are associated with Hawaiʻi, rather than pua kala (Hawaiian poppy) and papala (Hawaiian amaranth).
In some cases, nonnative plants are substitutes for the endangered real deal: the lauaʻe fern we know today is actually an imported plant from Australia; the delicately fragranced peahi (triploid fern) is our own native plant, also known as lauaʻe.
The loss of native plants over generations has disrupted entire ecosystems in our islands, affecting a web of interconnected species of flora and fauna, impacting topography, watersheds, and even our climate and weather patterns. For example, without native forests to capture clouds on Haleakalā’s southern slopes, the well-known Nāulu rain no longer travels with as much frequency or intensity to Kahoʻolawe, resulting in more arid conditions. This amazing ecological relationship is described by the ʻōlelo noʻeau “Hahai nō ka ua i ka ululāʻau: the rain follows the forest.”
Despite so much loss, decades of work by dedicated individuals and communities are helping to restore and preserve native plant populations. E ka ʻohana Kamehameha can do more during this Native Hawaiian Plant Month: let’s show our lāʻau kamaʻāina some love!
What is a Native Hawaiian plant?
A plant that existed in Hawaiʻi before humans arrived is considered a native plant. Such plants came to Hawaiʻi by wind, water, or through dispersal by birds. There are two types of native plants: endemic and indigenous. Endemic plants such as hāpuʻu (Hawaiian tree fern) and wiliwili (Hawaiian coral tree) are found only in Hawaiʻi, while indigenous plants such as the palapalai (lace fern) and ʻaʻaliʻi (hopbush) were found growing in Hawaiʻi, but are also found in other parts of the world. We may also be familiar with canoe plants, which is a category of non-native Polynesian-introduced plants, such as ʻulu (breadfruit), maiʻa (banana), kī (tī leaf), and kalo (taro) that were brought to Hawaiʻi aboard canoes by Polynesians.
What can I do?
Here are some ways you can kōkua in the effort to make sure our lāʻau ʻōiwi (native plants) grow in our islands for many more generations!
E kanu pono! Plant pono!
If you are thinking about planting, gardening, or landscaping, check out the Plant Pono website to make sure that the plants you choose are not invasive! This awesome resource is the result of a partnership between the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species (CGAPS), and the Hawai‘i Biological Information Network, with advice and participation from the Landscape Industry Council of Hawai‘i and its member associations.
The website allows you to make good decisions about the plants you choose. Sadly, Hawaiʻi does not have laws restricting the sale of invasive plants, so many stores and nurseries sell plants that are highly invasive, meaning they can easily spread to natural areas where they replace native plants!
E ulu i nā lāʻau kamaʻāina! Grow some natives!
Native plants often use less water than other plants and are best suited for our islands. Removing native plants from the wild can be very harmful, but luckily they are also increasingly easy to find! Check out botanical gardens, nurseries, and plant shops and programs for native plants. Maui Nui Botanical Garden has some of the best plant sales! You can specifically engage with landscapers and gardeners who know how to work with native plants. Some natives that are easy to grow (even if you don’t have a yard) include:
E mālama ʻāina! Take care of the land!
There are lots of opportunities to mālama ʻāina that will help preserve or have a positive impact on native plants!
E aʻo aku, aʻo mai! Learn about native plants!
Hawaiian Ethnobotany Online Database
This database by the Bishop Museum includes both ethnographic information (like ʻōlelo noʻeau) and botanical information about native plants.
Native Plants Hawaiʻi
This database by the University of Hawaiʻi offers some planting information for lāʻau kamaʻāina.
Krauss, Beatrice. (2001). “Plants in Hawaiian Culture” – Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Abbot, Isabella Aiona. (1992). “Lāʻau Hawaiʻi: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants” – Honolulu, HI: Bishop Museum Press.
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