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What is a Native Hawaiian Plant?

A native Hawaiian plant is a plant that existed in Hawaii long before humans arrived. Native plants came to Hawaii by three methods: Wind, Water (Ocean), and Wings (Birds).

  • WIND: Jet streams blew tiny seeds or spores half way around the world
  • WATER: Plant material (seeds or vegetative reproductive parts) drifted on the ocean currents
  • WINGS: Birds transported seeds with them when they flew over the ocean. The seeds were either in the stomachs or adhered to the body of the bird.

Getting to Hawaii was just the first hurdle these plants faced. Once they were transported here, these plants needed to grow and adapt to their new surroundings.

The founder plants that were established during this time of pre-human contact are categorized as indigenous plants. Indigenous plants are plants that were found growing in Hawaii, but are also native to other parts of the world. Beach naupaka (Scaevola sericea) is an example of an indigenous plant because it is native to Hawaii and can also be found growing in other areas like the South Pacific Islands. As time went by, some of these indigenous plants changed to better adapt to Hawaii's environment. This process is known as adaptive radiation. The changes in these plants made them unique to Hawaii or endemic. Endemic plants are plants that are native ONLY to Hawaii. An example of an endemic plant is our State flower, the yellow hibiscus, Ma'o Hau Hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei).

In general, Hawaiian plants, when planted in the correct habitat and once established in the ground, will be able to grow with less irrigation and be able to handle drought conditions better than some of the other landscape plants currently being used.

Getting Started

When selecting plants for your landscape, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Location, location, location.

  • Assess the area where you want to install your landscape. How much sunlight does the area receive? Are there structures, overhead or underground lines, or other obstructions that you need to be aware of? How much rainfall does the area get? When does it rain? Winter only or all year? What is the function of the planting area? Will the area get a lot of foot traffic?

Choose the right plant for the right place.

  • Use the planting lists above to choose plants that will be appropriate for the space and growing conditions you have. The growth form, height and spread are provided in the zone planting lists provided. Be sure to allow for enough space for the plants to reach its full size unless you plan on doing regular pruning and maintenance.
  • Group the plants according to watering and sunlight requirements.
  • When purchasing your plants, select healthy specimens that are not pot-bound.

Acquiring Natives

It is illegal to collect wild plants and seeds without the proper permits. It is best that you obtain plants for your landscape from local nurseries, friends, and plant sales. If you do acquire the proper permits to collect from the wild, remember to collect sparingly from each plant, and know what you are collecting. Some plants are on the Federal and State endangered species lists and require additional permits in order to collect.

Soil

Do you know what type of soil is in your yard? For a quick test, take some soil and add a little water to it if it's dry. Roll the soil it into a ball and then press it lightly. Does it stay in a compact ball shape? If so, you most likely have clay soil, which retains moisture, has poor drainage, and forms cracks on the surface when it dries out. Does the soil crumble without forming a ball? You have sandy soil, which has excellent drainage, but sometimes doesn't retain moisture long enough for the plants to consume it. The ideal situation is if the soil forms a ball, but can be easily broken apart. This means your soil is loamy. Loamy soil retains moisture, but also has good drainage. Clay or sandy soils can be improved by adding organic matter (i.e., mulch or compost) to the soil. To learn more about your soil, contact your local agricultural extension office.

Irrigation

When planting your native plants in the ground, regular irrigation is initially needed to help get the roots established. Once the plant is established in the ground, irrigation can be reduced. When watering the plants, it is better to do periodic, deep soaks to encourage downward root growth. Irrigate with a slow trickle for several minutes (for example 10-15 minutes 2 or 3 times a week in loamy soils, decrease the frequency of irrigation for clay soils and increase for sandy soils), which allows the water to filter into the soil rather than just running off the surface. This type of irrigation schedule encourages deeper root growth and will increase the plant's chances of survival during drought conditions. If the soil is moist do not water, because over watering reduces the oxygen in the soil and can kill the plant. If you irrigate frequently and for a short period of time (for example, 1-3 minutes every day), the roots will grow only where there is moisture near the surface of the soil. Shallow rooted plants do not have good anchorage in the soil and are more susceptible to drought conditions.

Plants will vary in how long it will take to become established in the ground. It may range from a few months to a few years. Usually, vigorous new growth is a good indicator that the roots have expanded into the surrounding soil and is well underway to becoming established in the ground.

Fertilizer

Native plants do not need very much fertilization. In fact, over-fertilization can harm or even kill native plants. If you want to fertilize your plants, it's best to apply it at half the recommended dosage. Adding compost to the soil is another way to add nutrients without adverse affects and it will also improve the soil structure.

Mulch

Mulch is an excellent way to retain soil moisture, reduce weed emergence and add a finished look to your landscape. Mulch comes in various colors and materials- ranging from wood chips to cinder to shredded rubber. Wood chips breakdown rapidly in Hawaii's climate and adds beneficial organic matter to the soil. When spreading the mulch, do not place it right next to the bark of the plant. There is a chance the bark will rot wherever the mulch is touching due to excess moisture, and the plant may die. It's best to leave a three (3) inch buffer around each plant base.

Propagation

The two primary ways plants are propagated are by seeds or cuttings. A couple of handy reference books to have in order to learn more about how to propagate native plants are: Heidi Bornhorst's book, Growing Native Hawaiian Plants, and A Native Hawaiian Garden: How to Grow and Care for Island Plants by John Culliney and Bruce Koebele.

Places to See Native Plants

Interested in seeing native Hawaiian plants growing in the landscape? Check out the following places on Oahu to get an idea of what the plants look like and how to use them in the landscape. Please contact the gardens for visitor hours and other information.

Name Address Phone Number
Foster Botanical Garden 50 North Vineyard Boulevard
Honolulu, HI 96817
(808) 522-7066
Halawa Xeriscape Garden 99-1258 Iwaena Street
Aiea, HI 96701
(808) 748-5041
Pearl City Urban Garden Center 955 Kamehameha Highway
Pearl City, HI 96782
(808) 453-6050
Liliuokalani Botanical Garden North Kuakini Street
Honolulu, HI 96817
(808) 522-7060
Koko Crater Botanical Garden Inside Koko Crater (808) 522-7060
Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden 45-680 Luluku Road
Kaneohe, HI 96744
(808) 233-7323
Leeward Community College 96-045 Ala Ike
Pearl City, HI 96782
(808) 455-0290
Contact: Frani Okamoto
(808) 455-0285
Contact: Priscilla Millen
Waimea Valley Audubon Center 59-864 Kamehameha Highway
Haleiwa, HI 96712
(808) 638-9199

University of Hawaii Botany Department: Native Hawaiian Plant Website

Resources/References

  • Department of Health Office of Environmental Quality Control, How to Plant A Native Hawaiian Garden, An On-Line Handbook.
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources Hawaiian Native Plant Propagation Database.
  • Bornhorst, Heidi L. 1996. Growing Native Hawaiian Plants: A How-To Guide For The Gardener. Honolulu: The Bess Press.
  • Culliney, John L., and Bruce P. Koebele. 1999. A Native Hawaiian Garden: How To Grow And Care For Island Plants. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Lilleeng-Rosenberger, Kerin E. 2005. Growing Hawaii's Native Plants: A Simple Step-By-Step Approach for Every Species. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing.