9 Hawaiian Plants Worth Knowing Of And How Plants Came to Hawaii | EarthyUniversity

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Hey you! 😊 Thanks so much for being here!

I'm so excited to share with you some extracts of the very first online course about Hawai'i.

In this article we will explore the rich Hawaiian flora and discuss how plants could make landfall on Hawai'i and how they survived and thrived. You'll be introduced to 9 specific plants that usually are associated with Hawai'i and that you should know about. 


Below you will find the transcript from the video about Hawaiian Flora as seen in Module 2: Nature of the world's first online course about Hawai'i: The ULTIMATE HAWAI'I TRAVEL CLASS. 😊

Read ahead if you:

  • are planning a Hawai'i vacation 
  • already booked your vacation and are gathering information about the islands
  • want to become a sustainable, responsible, informed traveler


This video is lesson 2: Hawaiian Flora from module 2: Hawaiian Nature 🌱





Hey there and welcome back!

This is lesson 2 of module 3. In this lesson, you will learn about Hawaiian plants.

Let's get right to it.

You have gotten to know the Hawaiian Islands quite a bit by now and you know how remote they are.

Have you ever wondered how life got there, how did plants and animals make their way to the islands?

You might say: "Well, of course with the early Polynesian settlers."

However, this is only somewhat true.

When the Hawaiian Islands were discovered by humans there already existed flourishing lush vegetation and abundant wildlife. Animals have already made the islands their habitat, long before humans even arrived.

And more so, the islands weren't born green. There were not palm trees and ferns rising from the ocean.

As you know, the islands were born from lava. And lava is rock. The black rock is naked, barren and rugged.

There is no life.

These are no conditions for life.

So in this lesson, we will tackle the question:

How did barren lava fields turn into lush vegetation? How did plants come to Hawai'i?

The secret lies in the 3 w's: wind, waves, and wings.

Spores, seeds or insects were carried thousands of miles over the ocean to the islands by winds, by waves or by wings.

Wings, in a broader sense, stand for all body parts of a bird. Seeds or tiny insects could have been glued to the feathers or feet of a bird or even carried around in their intestines.

And yes, you were right.

Later, the Polynesian settlers did bring plants and animals from their old home.

These plants and animals are then called 'introduced', not 'native'.

'Native' means that an organism arrived on the islands without the help of humans and got adapted to its new habitat.

But frankly, this doesn't answer the question how the very first plants could thrive on Hawai'i.

Let's say a tiny seed made its long way to the islands and actually succeeded in colonizing the island it made landfall on - which by the way is a pretty big deal, as this only happened every 100.000 years.

That's crazy, isn't it?

The lonely seed was not very happy with what it saw.

The land was naked and barren.

It wasn't welcoming the seed with open arms and perfect conditions for it to grow happily ever after. The seed had to work hard in order to live.

After all, it couldn't change its surroundings, but only itself.

Therefore, the plant had to adapt to its new home.

But there is still one problem needed to be solved:

Where is the soil our lovely seed needs in order to grow? Billions of years ago when the world was still a glowing lava ball and the continents very slowly started to solidify and to take shape there was also no soil.

Earth didn't just appear as we know it today, with all the plants and animals and all the water.

It is 4.56 billion years old during that time a lot has happened and a lot will be happening in the future.

So there had to be something for plants to grow on.

Soil is a mix of minerals and organic matter.

Organic matter builds when after the death of plants and animals microorganisms break down the organic tissue into its chemical components.

Organic matter in soil is the result of the decay of plants and animals. Minerals come from rocks, as you already know from module 1 lesson 1 'Geology Basics'.

Thus, to create soil, two ingredients are required: minerals and decaying organisms.

We are finally able to answer the initial question:

How did plants grow in Hawai'i?

Let's have a look at the first ingredient: Minerals come from rocks.

And lava is rock. Rock is composed of minerals.

The predominant rock in Hawai'i is, as you already know, basalt.

Basalt is not permanently resistant to weathering. Wind and water will eventually and steadily weather the rock physically and chemically.

When rock physically weathers, it breaks apart into ever smaller pieces of rock and minerals.

When rock chemically weathers, it changes its chemistry by reacting with water turning into new minerals, more specifically into clays and salts.

You might remember that basalt contains a mineral called 'plagioclase' which in broader terms belongs to the feldspar mineral group.

When chemically weathered, feldspar turns into clay minerals.

Now, we'll have a look at the second ingredient: organic substances.

Not all plants need soil to grow on. Moss and ferns are able to grow on bare, cooled lava. They are the very first ones to grow on the lava.

When the life of these plants ends, they decay and organic matter mingles with the minerals from the lava rock, as a result soil is formed.

After this, more plants can grow here, live, die, decay and build new organic matter.

This circle continues and soil accumulates. Eventually, forests, fields, trees and all other plants dependent on nutrient-rich soil are able to grow.

The Hawaiian Islands geographical location is a blessing in many ways.

Everything is connected: volcanism, wind, waves, climate and the amazing diversity of wildlife and vegetation found here.

Hawai'i is the habitat of many unique plants and animals.

89% of all Hawaiian plants are endemic.

This means that they only live here in Hawai'i and exist nowhere else on Earth.

I want to say this again: 89% of all Hawaiian plants are endemic. This means that they only live in Hawai'i and can't exist anywhere else on Earth.

The Islands' extreme isolation caused plants and animals to grow in complete solitude.

Due to their isolation these plants didn't even have enemies and therefore didn't develop any self-defense mechanisms such as scents or odors, spiky thorns or poisonous tissue.

Some plants have extremely adapted to their specific microenvironment and wouldn't be able to survive in a different location.

They are very sensitive to changes in their ecosystem. Numerous native and endemic species of Hawai'i are endangered or even critically endangered.

The arrival of humans and later international and global travel are the main cause of the loss and extinction of native species and the decline in diversity.

Due to the lack of effective self-defense mechanisms, native species are very fragile and vulnerable to threats.

Foreign, introduced animals such as grazing sheep, goats and cattle damage or eat the plants and some plants are even substituted by plants more suitable for agriculture.

Some introduced plant species are considered invasive in Hawai'i, as they invade the endemic plants' habitat and threaten their growth.

Introduced non-native plants and animals are a big risk to endemic wildlife.

This is the reason you are being screened thoroughly upon arrival at the airport.

Hawai'i is often called the 'Endangered Species Capital of the World', as more than 100 plant species have gone extinct already and even more are considered to have less than 50 individuals left in the wild.

Plant #1

A plant which is extremely rare and endemic to the summit of Mauna Kea and Haleakalā is the 'Ahinahina or Hawaiian Silver Sword.

It has a beautiful silvery color and soft, rounded fleshy, succulent leaves. When not blooming, they appear as low-growing rosettes on the dry desert-like cinder cone slopes of the volcanoes summit craters.

The leaves are able to retain water as gel and the silvery color reflects sunlight in order to reduce moisture loss during the day.

It can grow up to 1,8 meters or 6 feet. The flowers protrude 15-36 centimeters or 6-14 inches and they only bloom one single time in their lifetime.

This plant can live as long as 3-90 years or even longer. It dies after it bloomed and scattered its seeds into the wind.

It is currently endangered by invasive, non-native organisms as well as climate change.

Plant #2

Bamboo or 'Ohe is not native to Hawai'i but introduced by the Polynesians and is omnipresent on the islands.

Bamboo is giant grass with hollow stems and feathery leaves with a smooth, green or yellowish surface.

It can grow up to 15 meters or 50 feet high. It is incredibly fast growing at a pace of 30 centimeters or 1 foot per day. Therefore, it is an ideal renewable resource.

Plant #3

If you visit Maui, you might go to Lāhainā and walk to the Courthouse Square in downtown.

Then, you will see this beautiful Banyan Tree. Banyan Trees are also not native to Hawai'i.

This one in Lāhainā in particular was imported from India and planted in 1873 to honor the 50th anniversary of the first protestant mission in Lāhainā.

This specimen in Lāhainā is over 18 meters or 60 feet high and has 46 major trunks in addition to the massive original trunk in the center. It spreads over an area of 3.000 m² or 2/3 of an acre.

When this tree was planted and settled in, branches grew outward from its trunk.

So far everything seems normal, right? Seems like something a regular tree would do as well.

But now it comes: From these branches the aerial roots descent towards the earth and, eventually, these will touch the ground, build roots, grow larger and turn into trunks themselves.

Today the area is used as a popular gathering place.

Plant #4

The Hāpu'u or Hawaiian Tree Fern is endemic and endangered.

To be specific, there are two species of hāpu'u with two authorities.

Authorities are the names of the people who first described this plant and are used to classify and categorize this newfound species. But I will spare you the details and scientific names.

The main thing to know is that the one fern species prefers wet climate and loves moist and wet rainforests, whereas the other species grows in dry or damp forests.

Ferns are easily recognized by their large, feathery leaves.

The spores of ferns are very light and as tiny as a dust particle. Therefore, they can be transported by wind over long distances.

Ferns grow very slowly at a pace of 9 centimeters or 3,5 inches per year. They can reach heights up to 4-8 meters or 15-25 feet. Their fronds can be as long as 1-4 meters or 3-12 feet.

Ferns are threatened by overharvesting and landscape use.

Plant #5

There are seven species of Hawaiian Hibiscus, five of them are endemic.

And one of those, the Yellow Hibiscus or in Hawaiian "ma'o hau hele", has been the Hawaiian State Flower since 1988.

The Yellow Hibiscus is also rare, endangered and endemic to Hawai'i.

It produces yellow flowers with red or maroon centers in some varieties and blooms in spring through early summer.

It prefers dry forests and shrubland at elevations of 100-350 meters or 400-1.100 feet.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Yellow Hibiscus is critically endangered.

It is endemic to the Islands of Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i Kaho'olawe, Lāna'i and Hawai'i, but is no longer found on Kaho'olawe, Kaua'i or Moloka'i.

Decline is ongoing due to impacts of invasive, non-native plants and animals.

Plant #6

The Plumeria or 'pua melia' in Hawaiian is used in Hawaiian flower leis.

However, it is not native but was introduced to the islands.

It is a fragrant flower with vibrant colors. Plumerias can also be worn as jewelry in hair or behind the ear.

Plant #7

Koa trees are endemic to Hawai'i and can be found on all the main islands except Kaho'olawe and Ni'ihau.

It is the largest and most impressive tree in Hawai'i, growing up to 35 meters or 115 feet tall.

They can be recognized by their light gray, flaky, cracked surface. The leaves are sickle-shaped and 5-25 centimeters or 2-10 inches long and of green to gray-green color.

Native Hawaiians used Koa wood to build canoes, surfboards, spear-handles or ukuleles. It was considered the wood of Hawaiian royalty.

Today, Koa is one of the most expensive woods in the world and still used to craft ukuleles, furniture and surfboards.

Plant #8

The 'Ōhi'a lehua is a brightly colored, attractive flower.

Floral colors can be cream, light orange, orange, red, pink or yellow.

It is endemic and grows at elevations of 300-2700 meters or 980-8900 feet and are in bloom almost all the year round.

It is very well adapted to Hawai'i's climate and is able to grow on rocky ground. It usually is the first flower to grow on recent lava flows.

There exist many different varieties. You can see 'ōhi'a lehua as shrubs or trees, with different leaf shapes and as mentioned before in varying floral colors.

'Ōhi'a flowers and leaves are nowadays used for lei works and hula. However, many hula halaus, that means hula schools, have renounced using the 'ōhi'a to prevent spreading 'Rapid 'Ōhi'a Death' and thus protecting the plant.

'Rapid 'Ōhi'a Death', in short ROD, is an acute threat to the 'ōhi'a lehua and was discovered in Hawai'i in 2014.

It is a fungus which attacks the health and eventually leads to the death of a 'ōhi'a lehua plants. Already thousands of 'ōhi'a trees have been afflicted and died.

Here's what you can do to help prevent spreading ROD. Practice these five things when visiting Hawai'i:

  1. Avoid injuring 'ōhi'a.
  2. Don't move 'ōhi'a wood or 'ōhi'a parts.
  3. Don't transport 'ōhi'a inter-island.
  4. Clean gear and tools including shoes and clothes before and after entering forests.
  5. Wash the tires and undercarriage of your vehicle to remove all soil or mud.
Plant #9

You might know sandalwood or 'iliahi, as it is called by the Hawaiians. It is a fragrant wood and used in perfumes.

Six species of sandalwood are endemic to Hawai'i and they are immensely valuable.

Allegedly, they are the second most expensive wood in the world.

From 1810 to 1820, sandalwood was exploited in Hawai'i and sold. Not surprisingly tree population shrank tremendously due to overharvesting.

Luckily, sandalwood tree stocks have recovered today.


You have made it to the end of yet another video.

I hope you are now inspired to see the Islands' plants with new eyes.

In the next lesson, we will talk about the abundant Hawaiian wildlife.

For now, I want to leave you with this quote I found when researching for this online class. It is the perfect way to end this lesson.

"An appreciation of Hawaii's unique native plants and an understanding

of their precarious ecological status is most important in

preserving the few remaining natural areas and in preventing

any further extinctions or population depletion." (Lydon Wester)


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If you are intrigued to learn even more about Hawai'i and want to become a sustainable, conscious traveler, I invite you to visit the website EarthyUniversity and have a look at the ULTIMATE HAWAI'I TRAVEL CLASS. I'll see you there! 😊



Be kind and love nature, 


PS: Want to know why enrolling for the Ultimate Hawaii Travel Class will transform your vacation and make it outstanding rather than just "great"? Jump to this article: What This Online Class Can Do For You


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Who wrote this article? I'm Daniela. Pleased to meet you :) Read more about me here.

[Image Credit: Koko Crater as viewed from Makapu'u Lighthouse Trail, Photograph taken by Daniela Dägele (myself :))]


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