There are many wonderful plants here at the Honolulu Zoo. In fact many might call our Zoo a botanical garden. Some of the most resilient and lovely plants are native to Hawaii or have a long history of specialized importance to the Polynesian cultures.
For more comprehensive information about indigenous and endemic plants of Hawaii do as we did, and consult any publication by Mary Kawena Pukui, and Samuel H. Elbert; they are the source for much of the following information.
ALAHE‘E – Psydrax odoratum
Alahe‘e is a shrub or tree of dry and mesic forests. It has clusters of white fragrant flowers. The leaves are shiny green and glossy, even in the hottest and driest of times. The trunk is white and the wood is strong. It was used for o‘o or diggings sticks, carrying poles and house construction.
NAIO – Myoporum sandwicensis
Naio is a tree or shrub native to Hawaii. It is very toughed drought and wind tolerant. It has a wide elevational range. You find it on sand dunes at Polihale or baking sands on Kauai all the way up the high dry sides of mountains like Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.The white fruit is food for birds.
NA‘U OR NANU – Gardenia brighamii
Na‘u is an endangered native Hawaiian gardenia. It was once common in low dryland forests of Hawaii. Today there are fewer than 30 na‘u trees in the wild. Na‘u is a single petaled Gardenia that looks something like a tiare or Tahitian gardenia. The fragrance of na‘u is unique and distinct. Today there are fewer than 30 na‘u trees in the wild. Happily it grows fairly well in gardens. Horticulture, botanical gardens and private Gardeners and hobbyists who care about native plants have helped to save and perpetuate na‘u and other rare Hawaiian plants.
LONOMEA, O‘AHU SOAPBERRY – Sapindus oahuensi
This tree is found naturally in dry to mesic forests of the older main Hawaiian Islands of O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. It is a handsome tree with a bold white trunk and dark green linear leaves. The fruit is brown black and glossy with a thin rind. It is a great food for birds, and their feeding helps to spread the seeds, away from under the mother tree. Inside is a rippled, irregular shaped seed. The thin fruit pulp can be used for soap and the knobby black seed is used for lei making.
LOULU – Pritchardia spp
Loulu are the only kind of palm native to Hawaii. All other kinds of palms found here today were imported to Hawaii by people. There are about 16 native species of loulu or Pritchardia. Some are found only on one island or even a single valley or ridge top. Some like Pritchardia munroi from Molokai are down to a handful of individuals in the wild. Happily, seeds were collected many years ago and over 30 grow in botanical gardens today. Hawaiians used loulu
palm fronds for thatching and for fine hat making. The seeds or hawane are edible and taste something like young coconut. Today grazing animals impact loulu and their seedlings and rats eat the seeds before fall to the ground and grow.
‘A‘ALI‘I – Dodonaea viscosa
A‘ali‘i can be a shrub, or with time, a small to medium sized tree. It is a very tough, drought tolerant and hardy native plant. It has a broad elevation range in dry climates. It is found on sand dunes, in dry land forests and all the way to alpine conditions on our high dry sides of the mountains. The Hawaiian name refers to its royal attributes and tough nature. This is a favored plant for lei makers. The seed capsules are very decorative and come in a range of colors red pink yellow tan and green. The wood is tough and durable it was used for o‘o or farmers digging sticks and for house beams and carrying poles. Dye for kapa was also made from ‘a‘ali‘i.
Munroidendron is a rare Hawaiian tree. It has a unique flower structure called a raceme with many small yellow flowers adorning the long silver flowering spike that hangs down. It has large silvery undersided leaves. It is found naturally only on Kauai and the whole genus is endemic to Hawaii.
‘OHIA LEHUA – Metrosideros polymorpha
‘Ohi‘a lehua is a prime rainforest tree in Hawaii. It provides food, perching and nesting habitat and shelter for all kinds of Hawaiian plants and animals. It also grows in wet coastal areas, on new lava flows, in high elevation bogs and in many diverse well-watered habitats. The flowers are usually red and full of nectar and pollen to attract and nurture native Hawaiian birds and insects. Besides red, the flowers also come in shades of yellow, orange, salmon, and a mysterious legendary white flowered form. The leaves also come in many shapes colors sizes and textures. The new leaf buds are called “liko” and these can be yet another color and texture. Gardeners and landscape designers are finding out that they can grow ‘ohi‘a lehua. It makes a strikingly beautiful shrub or tree in the garden. Look at how well they grow here and take this knowledge home with you. One key to growing ‘ohi‘a lehua is to water the plants every day.
KOU, SMOOTH LEAFED KOU – Cordia subcordata
For years it was believed that kou was carried here purposely by the ancient Hawaiians and was thus a “canoe” plant. Recent fossil evidence, found by archeologists in coralline sink holes on Kaua‘i show that it is also a native Hawaiian plant – it got here on its own. (Having valuable wood, medicinal, dye and lei making uses, the Hawaiians carried kou seeds here as well, on their great voyaging canoes). Kou is a perfect tree for leeward coastal areas like Waikiki. It can grow in pure sand and salt water, but it does better with fertile soil and fresh water. It has large green slightly drooping leaves. It forms a fairly dense rounded canopy. The leaves make great animal food and excellent mulch.
HALA – Pandanus odoratissimus
Hala is both a native Hawaiian tree and a “canoe plant” carried here by the ancient Polynesians on their voyages of discovery and colonization. It has many uses. It is a tough and durable tree that can take strong salty winds and drink pure salt water if it has to. The leaves of hala are very tough and durable. Fine woven and plaited items that will last for years are made from the lau hala (leaf = lau) most lauhala have spines on the edges of the leaves. The ripe fruit (pu hala) has a small bit on the tip that is edible. Nene like this fruit too. There are Pu hala in other parts of the world that are large and very edible. One species provides the main starch in parts of New Guinea. Many islands of the pacific also have large edible fruited species of Pandanus.
KOKI‘O KE‘O KE‘O, NATIVE WHITE FRAGRANT HIBISCUS – Hibiscus immaculatus Molokai white hibiscus
The Molokai white hibiscus is nearly pure white. It has glossy light green leaves, and tends to grow tall and straight. It has hints of lemon yellow in the stamina column and pistils. It has a subtle yet lovely perfume. The native Hawaiian white hibiscus from Oahu, Kauai and Molokai are the only fragrant hibiscus in the world. This is a Federally listed endangered species. It almost went extinct in the wild on Moloka‘i, largely due to over grazing by introduced animals like pig, goats and deer as well as competition from weeds and destruction by wildfire.
NAUPAKA KUAHIWI – Scaevola gaudichaudii
Naupaka kuahiwi or Mountain Naupaka has half flowers and tells the story of a failed romance. This is the mountain species.There is also a more common indigenous species of Naupaka that is fairly common at coastal areas of Hawaii today. This is called Naupaka kahakai (naupaka by the sea)
KULU‘I – Nototrichium sandwicensis
This is a silvery leaved shrub of the lowland dry forests of Hawai‘i, often growing near the coast. The leaves are silvery, especially on the undersides and the flowers are fuzzy and silvery too.
LAMA, HAWAIIAN EBONY, NATIVE PERSIMMON – Diospyros sandwicensis
Lama is a tree of the dryland forest. It has a dark, nearly black trunk, small leaves that have pink or red liko when young, and small (olive sized) persimmon like fruit. Inside are from one to five seeds.
MA‘O, HAWAIIAN COTTON – Gossypium tomentosum
Mao has a clear yellow blossom and silvery kukui or maple shaped leaves. The seeds have short brown wooly hairs and have a tan fuzzy look (commercial cotton looks life puffy Johnson cotton balls). Ma‘o was used for medicine and for a prized green kapa dye. This is a plant of harsh coastal areas and lowland dry forests. We rarely see it in the Wild today because these are have been most heavily damaged, altered and changed by the activities of people.
POHINAHINA, POLINALINA, KOLOKOLO KAHAKAI, BEACH VITEX – Vitex ovalifolium
Pohinahina is a lovely slivery leafed crawling vine or groundcover. It has nice lavender flowers. The foliage has a spicy smell when crushed or stepped on. It is very tough and grows well with little water once established in the ground. It is ideal for coastal gardens, for xeriscaping (wise water gardening) and it also does well in most typical gardens if given full sunlight to grow in.
‘ILIMA PAPA – Sida fallax
‘Ilima is one of the favorite food plants of nene. It has 13.3% crude protein in the buds and leaves and is a nutritious food for nene and their goslings Look closely at ‘ilima and you will see that it looks like a miniature, golden yellow hibiscus. It is the official lei flower of the island of O‘ahu and takes about 1000 of the fragile blossoms to make one strand of this special lei. The ancient Hawaiians used ilima for medicine (buds were taken as a mild easy to take laxative for keiki), fiber, thirst quenching and as a source of moisture in dry areas. Nene like it for this reason too.
KO‘O LOA ‘ULA, RED ‘ILIMA – Abutilon menziesii
This is a federally listed rare and endangered species, largely due to habitat alteration and destruction. Yet, it is fairly easy to grow in gardens. We have a few plantings of it at the Honolulu zoo. Look around for this silvery leafed shrub with the bright red, pinkish or even sometimes yellow blossoms. Hibiscus leaves and flowers are a good, nutritious food for nene and other birds.
‘AKIA – Wikstroemia uva-ursi
‘Akia is a low ground hugging, coastal plant and some species are found in dry and wet forests. This is one of the first native Hawaiian plants that became popular in landscapes. It is an ideal xeriscape plant. It has silvery oval leaves, yellow four parted flowers and orange berries. ‘Akia is also called fish poison plant. It has a toxin in its twigs and bark that affects cold-blooded animals like fish. Akia is also a fiber plant. Cordage and baskets were made from the fibrous bark. Lei makers like to use the flowering and fruiting twigs in their creations.
MA‘O HAU HELE, ROCK’S KAUAI HIBISCUS – Hibiscus rockii / H. calyphyllus
This native yellow hibiscus is from Kauai. There is some doubt as to its true origin as there are no documented wild collections of the plant. All known cultivations are from garden stock. If it is native to Hawaii the name is ma‘o hau hele. Some say it is an old introduction from Africa, that has long been cultivated on Kaua‘i.
KUPUKUPU, KUPUKUPU FERN – Nephrolepis exaltata
This pretty mini sword fern is native to Hawaii. It makes a nice groundcover and is used for lei making.
MOA – Psilotum nudum
Moa is a primitive, fern like plant. To the Hawaiians the wiry stems looked like chicken feet and thus the name moa (chicken). The moa stems can grow to about a foot high and as wide or wider. They are green and wiry. The spores are yellow and sometimes the stems turn yellow orange in color. Primitive plants like this don’t make seeds to grow new plants from. They spread by spores. The spores of moa are yellow. These moa spores were used like talcum powder in old Hawaii –to prevent chafing under the malo. The stem was brewed into a tea and had cathartic properties. Moa is an indigenous Hawaiian plant. It is also found growing naturally elsewhere all over the tropics. It grows in dry and moist environments and will grow on the ground, amidst rocks, on trees, and in stone walls. The roots of moa have a cooperative, symbiotic fungus that helps them grow. (Orchids do this also, and so do many forest trees and plants).
KI, TI, LA‘I – Cordyline terminalis
Ki, the Ti plant, grows abundantly, cultivated and wild, throughout the tropical Pacific and Southeast Asia. It is common from sea level in the lower wetlands, up to the 4,000 foot elevation. Ti is found in shady moist gardens, as a landscaping background plant or as a hedge. The people of Hawai‘i plant it around their homes and churches for good luck. The ti’s versatile leaves have many uses, including: as wrappings for offerings; for roof thatching; as fly whisks or fans; wrappings for cool food storage, preservation and protection; for wrapping of food to be cooked, especially for laulau; as plates or cups; as fishing lures on hukilau nets; as wearing apparel, such as rain capes, sandals and as hula skirts called pa‘u; and, more recently, as feed for cattle and horses. From Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii, www.canoeplants.com/ki.html
WAUKE, PAPER MULBERRY – Broussonetia papyrifera
This useful plant will become a tree with time. Ancient Polynesians carried it all over Oceania, including Hawaii. There are many fiber plants that bark cloth can be made from and wauke is the premiere plant for Polynesians.
NONI (VARIEGATED) – Morinda citrifolia
Polynesian introduction, native to SE Asia. Nene like to eat the ripe fruit of noni. Noni fruit is a famine food for people and was used for medicine and kapa dye. Noni is a pretty plant with large bold glossy green leaves that are arranged in an opposite pattern on the stem. The flowers are tiny and white and look like a mini tiare. A group of flowers fuse into a fruit that is white when young, and then deep translucent pale yellow when ripe. Ripe fruit pulp of noni is really hauna. You would have to be starving to eat this stuff!
RED LEAF HAU – Hibiscus tiliaceus
Hau has a nutritious leaf and flower. It makes excellent mulch and was favored for old Hawaiian Lo‘i kalo (taro patches) The Hawaiians had many many uses for hau: buds are medicinal and were taken as an aid to childbirth, as well as a laxative. The leaves make great desert plates at an elegant luau (and you can compost them into the garden when the feast is pau). The wood is soft lightweight and easily carved. Net floats, ama or canoe outriggers, puppets and various fishing tools were made from hau. The bark is stringy and fibrous and was used for lashing and cordage. Hau flowers can tell you what time of day it is: The yellow, hibiscus like flowers of hau open as a clear yellow in the morning. By midday they turn orange and at the end of the day they are red. The red flowers drop to the ground in a beautiful display the next morning.
PUA ALOALO, YELLOW HIBISCUS – Hibiscus brackenridgei
The pua aloalo, or yellow hibiscus (Hibiscus brackenridgei) was designated the official state flower of Hawaii in 1988 (also called ma‘o-hau-hele). Each Hawaiian island also designates an official flower or lei material: Hawai’i: red pua lehua (‘ohi’a blossom), Maui: lokelani (pink Damask rose), O’ahu: pua ‘ilima, Kaua’i: mokihana berry, Moloka’i – Pua Kukui (blossom of candlenut tree), Lana’i: kauna’oa (native dodder), Ni’ihau: pupu (tiny seashells), and Kaho’olawe: hinahina (native beach heliotrope).
KUKUI, CANDLE NUT TREE – Aleurites moluccana
The kukui is the official tree of the state of Hawaii. It is also called the “candle nut tree”. This valuable and useful shade tree was carried to Hawaii by the ancient Polynesians, and all over Polynesia as well Light, food, food seasoning (inamona), medicine and kapa dye are all made from parts of the kukui tree. Kukui is symbolic of learning and enlightenment.
MILO – Thespesia populnea
Milo is a shade tree that thrives in low, hot dry coastal areas. The ancient seafaring Polynesians made sure to pack some milo seeds on their voyages of discovery and colonization. Medicine, dye, flowers for lei making, and valuable wood all come from Milo. The leaves make good food for grazing animals and make good compost for your garden.
‘APE – Alocasia maccorrhiza
Ape is a famine food. You must boil it and change the water many times to render the calcium oxalate crystals in the leaves and stem edible and digestible for people. The leaves make a great umbrella when you are out in the rainforest.
HALA PEPE – Pleomele spp
Hala pepe is a fairly rare native Hawaiian tree of dryland and mesic forests. It looks something like a ti leaf plant or a money tree.
HO‘AWA, HA‘AWA – Pittosporum spp.
Hawaii has several species of native Pittosporum, as well as some introduced ones. Native Ho’awa are becoming quite popular in landscaping. They are a small to medium sized tree that grows slowly. This is an attribute in many gardens. The leaves are paddle shaped and have different colors and textures. The flowers are small white and fragrant and are borne in clusters, nestled in amidst the leaves. The fruit is a woody pod that splits open, revealing orange pulp and black seeds. Ho‘awa has oily seeds that are a food for ‘Alala, (Corvus Hawaiiensis) the highly endangered Hawaiian crow. The outer layer of the fruit valve was used medicinally, pounded up and used to heal sores. It was also used for caulking canoes. There are ten endemic and two naturalized species of Pittosporum
Nene are a goose of the grasslands. Rich grasses are one of their favorite foods. They eat native Hawaiian grasses and will also forage on the more tender of alien grasses and weeds.
PILI GRASS – Heteropogon contortus
Pili grass is a favorite nene food, especially when it is young and succulent. It was used as thatch for “grass shacks”. Pili is an indigenous grass. It is found naturally in Hawaii and in many other places including North America, Australia and Polynesia. It is also called “Tangle head”. The seeds are sharp and awn shaped and they are borne on long filaments that become tangled up with each other. When you plant the seeds and add water, watch what happens. The filaments will tangle up with each other, twist and contort themselves and actually drill the awn shaped seed into the soil. The scientific species name “contortus” refers to this amazing phenomenon. You also don’t want to carry pili grass seeds in your pants pocket; they will contort themselves and drill into your skin! Pili is being grown in fields, bundled into bales, and helicoptered over to the island of Kaho‘olawe to help restore native forest and re-vegetate the island.
KAWELU, EMELOA, OR LOVE GRASS – Eragrostis variabilis
This native Hawaiian bunch grass lives in the lowlands, dry forest and along steep pali (cliffs) where alien grazing animals like goats cannot reach them. Like the nene, this species of grass was formerly much more widespread. Kawelu is an excellent food for nene. It is an attractive clump forming grass with golden –tan seed heads. It was once common in low dryland forests of Hawaii
ILIAU – Wilkesia gymnoxiphium
Hawaii as many highly evolved and specialized endemic kinds of plants in the daisy family. Possibly from a single immigrant, weedy plant called a tar weed that grows in Baja California, evolved silverswords green swords, na‘e na‘e, ko‘o ko‘o lau and the iliau of Kauai. Iliau is found naturally only on Kauai. You can visit the Iliau Nature Loop on your way up to Koke‘e state park on Kauai. This is one of the few places it grows in abundance. Gardeners have recently figured out how to grow it. Like their “cousins” the silverswords, iliau many be monocarpic, that is the plant flowers once and then dies. The plants don’t always do this, some can flower and set seed and still keep on living. This kind of variability increases the survivorship of the species. They usually flower in May and June.
INDIAN SANDALWOOD – Santalum album
This is the sandalwood of trade. Everything from incense to fine furniture to perfume is made from the fragrant heartwood of mature trees. There are several native Hawaiian sandalwood species, still found in forests today. They are tricky and difficult to grow in cultivation. The Indian species, Santalum album grows fairly easily in Hawaii and there are plantations of it in India. There are other Santalum species in Bali, Indonesia and Australia. Hawaii was named “the sandalwood mountain” by people in China and is prized by people all over the world. Sandalwood fruit are edible for birds and for people.
RED BOTTLE BRUSH – Callistemon citrinus
This is an alien tree, native to Australia but it is not a bad pest in most parts of Hawaii. It is a bird watchers delight when in flower. Many kinds of birds like to sip nectar from the bright red bottle brush shaped flowers.
TERMINALIA SP. (TROPICAL ALMOND)
Naturally widespread in subtropical and tropical zones of Indian and Pacific Oceans and planted extensively throughout the tropics. It grows into a large tree 80–130 feet tall. Associated with coastal vegetation, especially strandline communities and beach forests including rocky shores and edges of mangrove swamps.