Plants in Hawaii
There is an ‘olelo noʻeau (Hawaiian saying): “He keiki aloha nā mea kanu.” Beloved children are the plants. It is said of Hawaiian farmers that their plants are like beloved children, receiving much attention and care. There are stories of ancient planters giving a name to their ipu (gourd) like a child so no one would harm it. This sums up how valuable the environment, and plants in particular, are to Native Hawaiians.
Photo: Beach Naupaka, native to Hawaii, grows wild along the coastline. © Connor Chott
In modern day, plants in Hawaii can be divided into the following categories:
Native Hawaiian Plants. These are plants that arrived in Hawaiʻi without the help of man. They came here long ago in one of three ways — the three “w”s: wind, water, or wings. In the Hawaiian language, those would be the three “m”s: makani (wind), moana (ocean) and manu (bird). Seeds, spores, roots, and cuttings were carried here on the wind or floated to the islands on the ocean currents. “Wings” would be those seeds that a bird might have eaten and deposited here, seeds that may have gotten stuck on a bird’s feathers, and seeds embedded in the mud stuck on a bird’s feet. The three “w”s (or “m”s) also apply to the arrival of native animals and native insects.
Photo: The native Haleakalā Silversword, existing only on Maui’s Mount Haleakalā, can live up to 90 years but blooms only once in its lifetime (shown), then dies. This is a threatened species protected by federal law. © Polinahe Photography
Canoe Plants. These are the plants that the first Polynesians brought to Hawaiʻi by canoe because they were highly valued for food, medicine, or utility. Food plants are those such as kalo (taro–pictured at top of page), ‘uala (sweet potato), ‘ulu (breadfruit), mai’a (banana) and niu (coconut). Medicine plants might include ‘olena (turmeric) and kukui (candlenut). Utility plants include hala or pandanus (the leaves are used for weaving mats, baskets, canoe sails and many other items), ‘ohe or bamboo (for fishing rods, house rafters and musical instruments), wauke or paper mulberry (to make cloth) and ipu or gourds (for bowls, containers, and drums).
Photo: Ripening banana cluster on a tree. © Polinahe Photography
Introduced Plants. These are the majority of plants seen in Hawaiʻi today. Many, many plants have been introduced to Hawaiʻi as food and ornamentals. Introduced plants are not all bad, especially since we enjoy seeing and smelling their pretty flowers, having nice lawns with shade trees, and eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Many introduced plants bring beauty and productivity to our land.
Photo: Heliconia is a beautiful ornamental plant that was introduced to the islands.
Invasive Plants. These are the introduced plants that are not good for the environment. Plants that don’t stay within their boundary, spread rapidly, and eventually crowd out and take over their neighbors. Unfortunately, today you can see many examples of invasive plants throughout Hawaiʻi and the toll they have taken on our fragile native environment.
Photo: Yellow ginger, although appreciated for its beauty and fragrance, is considered an invasive weed in Hawaii.
Before arriving in the islands you will be required to fill out a Hawai‘i Agriculture Declaration Form, indicating whether or not you are bringing any plant products (even fresh fruit you brought for a snack) or animals into the state. You will also encounter agricultural inspections at Hawai‘i’s airports. Mahalo for cooperating with these inspections and restrictions, as they are an important part of the process to protect our precious environment. In this way, you can help us mālama ka ‘aina (respect/take care of the land)!
Mahalo to the Hawaiian Cultural Staff at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel for providing this guest blog on Hawaiian culture. The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel has long been known as “Hawaii’s most Hawaiian hotel” and is highly respected for its commitment to providing an authentic Hawaiian cultural experience for its guests.
Want to learn more about native Hawaiian plants? Enjoy a tour of Maui Nui Botanical Gardens in Kahului, dedicated to preserving Maui’s native plants and cultural heritage. Docent-led guided tours are available on weekdays at 10 a.m. (by advance reservation only). You’ll learn about the natural history, conservation, and traditional uses of Hawaiian plants. Or wander the garden yourself with a brochure and audio wand designed for self-guided tours. General Admission: $10 (UPDATE: Due to COVID restrictions, these tours might be temporarily suspended or tour schedules might change. Please check directly with Maui Nui Botanical Gardens to determine the current status.)
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(Note: We recognize and respect the significance of the ‘okina and kahakō markings in the written Hawaiian language; however, we have omitted those diacritical markings on our site in order to integrate with the more common spellings used in online searches.)
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