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Meet the Man Who Is Restoring Native Plants to Hawai‘i’s Urban Spaces

Hui Kū Maoli Ola is bringing back native habitats that once thrived across the islands.


Spaces Native Hawaiian Plants Rick Barboza

Photos: David Croxford and Rick Barboza


Rick Barboza walks around the expansive backyard of an oceanfront property in Portlock he landscaped a few years ago, pointing out each plant and telling a story.


“We put in tons of ‘ōhi‘a lehua here,” he says, motioning to the flowering evergreen tree endemic to Hawai‘i. “Every property and every home should have ‘ōhi‘a lehua no matter what. There’s a common misconception that it only grows at high elevation and that’s just not true. We planted it at a house in Lanikai—on Lanikai Beach.”


Barboza, who co-founded Hui Kū Maoli Ola, specialists in native Hawaiian plants and landscaping, is on a mission to bring back native Hawaiian ecosystems in urban and residential spaces, using plants that would have naturally grown and thrived in these areas.


For this particular home, about 75 percent of the trees, shrubs and ferns planted come from the southeastern part of the Ko‘olau Range. He split the landscaped yard into two sections—mauka and makai—with plants that grow well in these microclimates. He included the endangered ‘ihi‘ihilauakea fern, which resembles a four-leaf clover and is found in the crater above Hanauma Bay, and pōhinahina, a sprawling shrub with silvery-green leaves and small purple flowers found in nearby Waimānalo. In all, this property is now home to 19 endangered plants.


For Christmas, Barboza gave the owners the books Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawai‘i and Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary, both by David Liitschwager, and bookmarked the pages with all the plants they now have in their yard.


“Hawai‘i is the extinction capital of the world and the reason is because the most biodiverse zone—the lowland dry forest—is where the humans have impacted the most; it’s where we all live,” Barboza says. “What I wanted to do was try to use that to our advantage, reverse the trend and put back the plants that were originally there.”


In the Landscape


Red ‘Ōhi‘a lehua 

Metrosideros polymorpha

Red Ohia Lehua


One of the most important trees in Hawaiian culture, the ‘ōhi‘a was used to make everything from rafters in homes to gunwales in canoes. Its flowers—red, yellow, orange, white—were used in lei and decorated hula altars for the god Kuka‘ōhi‘a.



Osteomeles anthylidifolia 



This groundcover shrub has dark, glossy pinnate leaves and very fragrant white flower clusters, commonly found on the main Hawaiian Islands. You can eat the fruit.



Marsilea villosa 



This rare, endangered fern, which resembles a four-leaf clover, is found in the crater on the western end of Hanauma Bay, which has the same name. (‘Ihi‘ihilauakea is also the name for the wind that blows across the area.)



Achyranthes splendens var. rotundata



Silver in color with soft, rounded leaves, this endemic plant is extremely rare and can only be found on the coastal coral plains. It’s related to sage.



Gardenia brighamii



This endangered gardenia plant, with small flowers that smell like non-native gardenia but with a hint of coconut oil, is one of the most threatened plants in Hawai‘i. In the wild, there is only one plant remaining on O‘ahu and a handful on Lāna‘i. 



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