A native Hawaiian plant is defined as one that got to Hawai’i initially via natural processes. More specifically, the species arrived by one of the “Three W’s”:
- Wind (by riding wind currents)
- Wing (stuck in the feathers or ingested in the stomach of a migratory bird)
- Wave (by riding ocean currents)
This newly introduced species is considered indigenous, meaning it is now native to Hawai’i as well as elsewhere in the world. Once this species has been in Hawai’i long enough for evolution to differentiate it significantly from its original ancestor(s), it is considered endemic to Hawai’i. This means the particular species is completely unique to Hawai’i and can be found nowhere else in the world.
Hawai’i has roughly 1,500 known native plant species. Of these, a staggering 90% are considered endemic! This is due in large part to the age of our island chain (about 70 million years old) and our isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (the Hawaiian Islands are considered the most isolated landmass on earth). These two factors, coupled with the fact that Hawai’i was once completely void of many of the plant predators common to the rest of the world (most notably large grazing mammals), has resulted in the evolutionary diversity that has made our native Hawaiian plants so very unique.
Hawaiian Name = Native Hawaiian Plant???
Not necessarily!!! Countless species of plants sold routinely in Hawai’i bear Hawaiian (or Hawaiian sounding) names, but are anything but Hawaiian. In fact, many are invasive and actually do significant harm to our fragile native ecosystems upon introduction into the wild. Here is a short list of some of the most common Hawaiian impostors. The plant names that appear in bold letters below are considered invasive species (meaning they are naturalized species that are known to spread aggressively and take over what’s left of our precious native ecosystems… in a nutshell, they’re really bad!):
All Gingers -Lantern ‘Ilima –Lantana
(Only ‘awapuhi and ‘olena
are Polynesian introductions) -Royal Palms –Octopus Tree (He’e)
All Heliconias -Monkeypod Tree -Macadamia Nuts
Kiawe -Mangos -Kona Coffee
Koa Haole (Hale Koa) -Pineapples -Lokelani
Maunaloa Vine -Proteas -Crown Flower
Kuhio Vine -Colorful Ti -Bromeliads
Anthiriums -Tiare Gardenia -Hawaiian Chilipepper
All Passion fruits -Hinahina -All Pine Trees
including lilikoi (Pele’s Hair) (Cook, Sugi, Ironwood…)
Strawberry Guava –Kukunaokala -Plumeria
and regular Guava (Mangrove) (Pua Melia)
Kā’ū Organges -Puakenikeni -Pikake
Pakalana -Tuberose -Woodrose
Papaya -Aloe –Laua’e Fern
Common Misconceptions About Native Hawaiian Plants
Hawaii’s native ecosystems have been under severe attack for well over 200 years now. Although habitat degradation has occurred (and is still occurring!!!) in many forms, native plants in Hawai’i have suffered four distinctly devastating blows to their survival in recent history:
- Large scale habitat destruction in the islands began with severe overgrazing by introduced livestock(cattle, horses, goats, sheep, etc.) in the early to mid 1800’s.
- Commercial agriculture in the mid to late 1800’s involved the clearing of thousands upon thousands of acres of native ecosystems to make way for mono crops of sugar cane and pineapple.
- The decrease of commercial agriculture over the past sixty years has paved the way for massive urban and residential development projects, many of which have stampeded their way back into valleys, up onto ridges, and down onto the beaches which managed to escape the brunt of the previous attacks from livestock and agriculture.
- Countless species of invasive alien plants have become established in our islands and many more are aggressively establishing themselves as we speak. Introduced by humans (some by accident, but most intentionally!!!), these invasive plants severely out compete natives for food, water, sunlight, and space and have already come to dominate vast expanses of our delicate island ecosystems.
In sum, these influences have taken a staggering toll on Hawaii’s natural environment. Our lowland dry forests have taken perhaps the worst blow, as they represent the region most directly impacted by livestock, agricultural, and developmental degradation. Sadly enough, only about 5% of our native lowland dry forests remain today Statewide!!! This is an especially devastating fact considering this ecotype once held the largest diversity of native plant species in Hawai’i.
“How can I help give this story a happy ending?”, You ask?
Plant Native Hawaiian Plants!!!
Why is it so important to support Native Hawaiian Plants?