The First Hawaiians: Native Plants

They came by air and by sea: seeds and spores that sailed on the ocean currents, drifted high in the atmosphere, and hitched rides with migratory birds. Once every 100,000 years, a new plant made a lucky landfall and established itself in the young, isolated Hawaiian Islands. And then, often, it evolved. When Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, they found an archipelago already teeming with a diverse native flora. These plants, many found nowhere else on earth, became part of the medicine, the worship, the knowledge and the everyday lives—in short, part of the culture—of Hawaii before Western contact.

Sesbania tomentosa

Hawaiian name: ohai

Once a common sight on Hawaii’s shorelines, ohai has become increasingly rare in the wild. It is still a favorite of lei makers and knowledgeable gardeners; ohai is a nitrogen-fixer, enriching soil for other plants.

Viola chamissoniana

Hawaiian name: pamakani

Many species are specific to one island, or even—as with this white-flowered relative of garden-variety violets—a single mountain range. Endangered Viola chamissoniana can be found only on three remote, rocky ridges in Oahu’s Waianae Range.

 

Metrosideros polymorpha

Hawaiian name: lehua, ohia lehua

In ancient times, a lehua was the first and finest warrior sent into battle. Native Hawaiians observed that on a barren lava flow, this was the first tree to plant its standard, and gave the ohia lehua its poetic name. Ohia lehua can be a creeping shrub or a towering tree, but all varieties of this indomitable species feature signature firework-burst flowers, in red, orange or, rarely, yellow (lehua mamo, pictured above). Its exceptionally hard wood was used for kapa beaters, poi boards, spears and canoe gunwales.

Hibiscus kokio subspecies saintjohnianus

Hawaiian name: kokio

Native Hawaiians used the kokio, one of the showiest of native flowers, as an invisibility aid; valuable dye from the bark of this native hibiscus made nets and lines hard for fish to see underwater. Kokio was also used medicinally, as a tonic safe enough for children. While many of Hawaii’s native plants have become increasingly rare, the colorful, cultivated descendants of Hawaii’s native hibiscus species can be found in gardens and greenhouses throughout the world.

 

Portulaca molokiniensis

Hawaiian name: ihi

Ihi, a federally endangered purslane, survives in the wild on three uninhabited islets: Molokini and Puukoae Islet, both off the coast of Maui, and Kahoolawe.

Nephrolepis cordifolia

Hawaiian name: kupukupu

In Hawaiian, kupu means “to sprout.” Since pre-contact times, hula halau have decorated their altars, and fashioned wrist, ankle, and head lei with the kupukupu fern in the hope that knowledge will take root and sprout within the dancer.

 

Microsorum spectrum

Hawaiian name: peahi, lauae

The plant pictured here, “true lauae,” is not the familiar but non-native lauae that features in landscaping across the state. This fragrant native fern, traditionally used as hula adornment, appears in the ancient chants of Kauai.

Cyperus trachysanthos

Hawaiian name: puukaa

Endangered puukaa competes with humans for the use of rich bottomland, its natural habitat. It can be found in places such as the government-controlled valley of Lualualei, where a restricted-access ordnance storage facility coexists peacefully with rare species.

 

Sida fallax

Hawaiian name: ilima

This humble shrub produces a red or golden flower that has been honored in song and story since ancient times. In one legend, the goddess Hina celebrated a narrow escape with garlands of ilima. Queen Emma and Princess Kaiulani both favored the magnificent ilima lei, which can require 1,000 flowers and lasts a single day. Early Hawaiians also used the ilima plant medicinally, chewing the buds to alleviate thirst and relieve birth pains.

Peperomia blanda

Hawaiian name: alaala wai nui

Like its world-famous relation, black pepper, the seeds of Peperomia blanda have a pungent tang. Native Hawaiians used ashes from the leaves and stems to make a subtle gray-green dye for kapa cloth called ahiahia or puahia. The plant’s juice was used to treat a variety of conditions, from asthma to appendicitis to disorders of the inner ear.

 

Pipturus albidus

Hawaiian name: mamake, mamaki, waimea

Native Hawaiians beat the inner bark of this endemic stingless nettle into a fine kapa cloth, and made its leaves and bark into a calming tea still in use today.

Brighamia insignis

Hawaiian name: alula, olulu

Alula, prized for its fragrant flowers, once grew wild on rocky sea cliffs. Though its natural pollinator is now extinct,  alula has begun a second act as a favorite native presence in Hawaii’s contemporary gardens.

 

Scaevola gaudichaudii

Hawaiian name: naupaka kuahiwi

Some species of naupaka grow only near the sea; others, like this one, grow only in the mountains. The dark berries of mountain naupaka were traditionally used to make a purplish-black dye.

Abutilon menziesii

Hawaiian name: kooloa ula

Also known as “red ilima,” the elegant flowers of kooloa ula were once used in lei making. Today, its long-lasting blooms have made it one of the first endangered native Hawaiian species to be grown in contemporary gardens.

 

Wikstroemia uva-ursi

Hawaiian name: akia, kauhi

The crushed bark, roots and leaves of the narcotic akia were thrown into saltwater ponds to make the fish drunk and easy to catch. The so-called “fish poison plant” also has a darker history. In 1840, Chief Kamanawa II became the first chiefly man to be found guilty of murder under the new criminal laws of the Hawaiian nation that applied equally to all ranks; he had hired a man to mix akia and another fish poison into his jealous wife’s awa drink, with fatal results.

Haplostachys haplostachya

Hawaiian name: honohono

The endemic scentless mint honohono—not to be confused with the honohono orchid—was first recorded during the voyages of Captain Cook. Never common, honohono now exists in the wild in a single population on Hawaii Island.

 

Bidens menziesii

Hawaiian name: kokoolau, kookoolau

The delicate kookoolau shrub makes a refreshing and tonic traditional tea that is said to regulate the body’s digestive system. Each species of kookoolau has its own flavor.

Hibiscus arnottianus

Hawaiian name: kokio keokeo

The two species of native Hawaiian white hibiscus, kokio keokeo, are the only scented hibiscus in the world. The flowers of Hibiscus arnottianus open white and flush pink in the afternoon.

 

Lobelia hypoleuca

Hawaiian name: haha

Early 20th century botanist Joseph Rock translated the Hawaiian name of this lobelia, haha, as “eaten by the birds.” It is said that the leaves of Lobelia hypoleuca, which can grow several feet long, were used ceremonially to invite rain.

Lobelia niihauensis

Hawaiian name: haha

This lobelia’s brilliant blue flowers make it a show-stopper in the wild. Present-day scientists speculate that the flowers’ long, curved floral tubes evolved in unison with native honeycreepers’ long, curved beaks.

Mahalo to native plant and cultural specialists Rick Barboza, Puakea Nogelmeier and Joel Lau, who generously shared their knowledge.