When he visited the Hawaiian islands in 1866 as a special correspondent for the Sacramento Union, Mark Twain wrote about the islands’ “balmy airs . . . summer seas . . . plumy palms . . . remote summits . . . woody solitudes.” In short, Twain was charmed by the natural beauty of the islands he visited: Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. Many visitors and residents alike share his sentiments and admire the natural wonders that the isolated island chain has to offer.
To celebrate the start of spring, we’ll be highlighting some of Hawaii’s most exotic and amazing endemic plants, which means they’re found only in the Hawaiian islands.
(And if you’re curious whether Hawaii truly experiences seasons, let’s talk briefly about some of the differences you might see throughout the year! During the winter months, the daily temperature can be as much as 8-10 degrees cooler. Additionally, the islands typically see more rain from November – March. The winter season also often means big waves on the north-facing shores, since storms in the Pacific generally send swell southward toward the Hawaiian islands.)
But before we dive into sharing some of our favorite endemic plants, let’s dive into why Hawaii has so many unique flora and fauna—and why our endemic ones are so special.
Hawaiian Flowers and Plants: Native? Endemic? What’s the Difference?
By some measurements, the Hawaiian island chain is one of the most remote archipelagos in the world. As a result of this isolation, scientists have noted that its island ecosystem has evolved without a great deal of outside interference, resulting in a surprising number of species that are completely unique to Hawaii. (More than 5,000 by current estimates!)
That being said, several different populations have introduced plants and animals to the Hawaiian islands. The ancient Polynesians initially populated these islands brought a number of plants with them, including:
- Sugar cane
- Coconut palms
- Kukui nuts
- Taro (kalo in Hawaiian), which gets pounded into poi
- Ti plants, whose leaves get used in everything from plant medicine to leis to wrapping lau lau for cooking
The arrival of Europeans starting in the 18th century brought another wave of alien species, including horses, cattle, pigs, mongooses, pineapples, redwood trees and many more. In fact, some of the plants we think of when we think of Hawaii—including birds of paradise, plumeria and macadamia trees—are all alien species.
To help sort out the origins of all of these florae, each of these species is given the appropriate label:
- Alien or Non-Native: A species that was introduced to the islands by humans. When these are harmful to an ecosystem, they may also be referred to as “invasive.”
- Native: A member of the ecosystem that’s naturally occurring in the islands, such as a bird that flew to Hawaii without human intervention. Native species can be either:
- Endemic: A species that can’t be found anywhere else.
- Non-Endemic: A species that made its way to Hawaii, but may also be found elsewhere. For example, consider if a bird ate a berry, carried these seeds in its belly during its flight to Hawaii and deposited them on the Big Island, where it grew a bush identical to the one in the bird’s original home.
In this article, we’re going to focus on six Hawaiian flowers and plants that are endemic to the islands. If you want to see any of these with your own eyes, you’ll need to make your way to our isolated archipelago.
#1: Haleakala Silversword Plant
If you want to see the uniquely beautiful Haleakala Silversword, there’s only one place to go: Maui. Drive up to Haleakala National Park and take a hike to catch a glimpse of this silvery wonder. The silversword is endangered, with estimates that only 30,000 currently exist
If you want to enjoy a short day hike to see this exotic plant, try the Sliding Sands Trail. However, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, rent one of the three cabins in the Haleakala crater and enjoy a night or two in what’s been called “the quietest place on earth.” Cabins accommodate up to 12 people, so you can share the adventure with friends. Just remember to pack warm clothes! Temperatures at the summit of Haleakala can get as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just one word of warning: Park rangers ask visitors not to leave the trails to get a closer look at these rare plants. Even approaching the plants from a distance has the potential to damage their fragile root systems. So enjoy these plants from a safe distance—and bring your zoom lens to capture the perfect shot.
#2: Ohia Lehua
The endemic pua lehua is the official flower of the Big Island, and its vivid blossoms come with a legend of jealousy, heartbreak, and redemption.
As the story goes, in the Puna District of the Big Island, a warrior named Ohia fell in love with a beautiful woman named Lehua. After he pledged his love for Lehua, Ohia caught the eye of the goddess Pele. She fell in love with him and wanted him for her own. However, Ohia stayed true to his love, Lehua, and faced Pele’s wrath as a result. Different versions of the story involve Pele burning Ohia with fire or surrounding him with lava, but the end result was that Ohia was ultimately turned into a tree by the grace of more merciful spirits. His love Lehua was turned into a red flower on his tree so that she and Ohia could be forever united in the ohia lehua tree.
You can see, Hawaiian flowers and plants are important to both the ecosystem and culture.
These vibrant trees have come been under attack from what scientists are calling “rapid ohia death.” Recent advances in the study of this disease have traced its origins to a fungus. To do your part, make sure to clean your gear before and after visiting any of the national parks in Hawaii.
The ohelo plant, also known as the Vaccinium reticulatum, is perhaps more commonly known as the Hawaiian cranberry or the Hawaiian blueberry. Its bright red berries are edible, and, in fact, are a favorite food of the Hawaiian goose, which are called nene. As with many other species of berries, the bushes continue to spread as seeds are deposited in new locations by goose droppings.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the ohelo plant is where it prefers to grow. It’s generally found between 2,000 and 10,000 feet of elevation, often in lava flows and volcanic ash. It’s a hardy plant indeed, and it’s easy to see why this plant is endemic to Hawaii, whose lava flows over the years have offered the ohelo its preferred environment.
Jake Shimabukuro is one of the best known modern ukulele players. When Kamaka made 100 Jake Shimabukuro Signature Model ukuleles, they built them out of koa wood, which many regard as the most resonant wood for a ukulele.
Koa trees are endemic to the Hawaiian islands, where they are the second-most-common tree. In addition to making a fine body for a ukulele, many people also make furniture and crafts out of koa wood. In fact, it’s one of the most expensive woods in the world. If you’re looking to invest in a piece of furniture that you can pass down as an heirloom for generations, look no further than a beautifully-crafted piece of koa wood furniture.
Many people look at the endemic naupaka flower and see that it seems to be missing half its blossom. If you’re curious what happened to the other half, there are a number of Hawaiian legends that explain the flower’s unique shape.
One tells the story of Naupaka, a Hawaiian princess who fell in love with a commoner. If you know anything about the kapu rules of ancient Hawaiian society, you’d know that their love would have been absolutely forbidden.
Although they consulted several elders and priests, they were ultimately told there was nothing to be done, and they could not be together. In her sorrow, Naupaka took a flower out of her hair and tore it in half. She gave half to her intended husband and told him to return to the water and continue his life as a fisherman. She retired to the mountains to grieve. And, to this day, you’ll see naupaka both by the water and in the mountains, each with their distinctive half-flower.
Considering the yellow hibiscus is the Hawaii state flower, we certainly couldn’t skip this one. It’s what people are most likely to think of when they hear “Hawaiian flowers.” But did you know that there are seven species of hibiscus native to Hawaii, and several of those are endemic?
The yellow hibiscus was officially chosen in 1988. However, prior to 1988, you might see some images featuring a red hibiscus. As it turns out, in 1923, the territorial legislature approved the hibiscus as the official flower emblem of Hawaii—but did not specify the variety. Many assumed it would be red, so items were printed with the red hibiscus as Hawaii’s emblem. However, in 1988, the legislature got more specific and instated the yellow hibiscus (Hibiscus brackenridgei A. Gray) as the official Hawaii state flower.
In Hawaii, you’ll often see the yellow hibiscus, as well as other varieties, shaped into hedges to act as natural fences that are as beautiful as they are functional.
The Intriguing Natural Beauty of the Hawaiian Islands
Since the Hawaiian islands play host to thousands of endemic species, we’ve just scratched the surface with these six plants. Together, all of Hawaii’s unique flora and fauna offer yet another reason why this chain of islands in the Pacific is so special. Although Hawaii does experience some seasonality, most of these flowers are in bloom year-round, so if you need a break from the season you’re going through, they’ll be ready and waiting for you.
Considering making the yellow hibiscus your state flower with a move to Hawaii? We’d be happy to help! We can also assist with interisland moves, local moves and moves to the Mainland. Just get in touch with us for a quote and discover what it’s like to move with the spirit of aloha.
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