The Big Island of Hawaii is often called the orchid isle and is so named for its many orchid growers and a profusion of naturalized orchids such as the ever-present Arundina graminifolia (or Bamboo Orchid). The orchid above, Blc. Goldenzelle, was greenhouse grown, at Akatsuka Nursery, one of many Hawaiian Orchid Nurseries.
Kalo (Taro), Caladium colocasia, is native to the East Indies and been carried throughout the Pacific by the Polynesians who used Kalo/Taro as a staple starch. There are over 30 varieties of cultivated Taro in the Islands including a few dry land varieties, as shown here, as well as the popular wetland variety which grows in shallow paddies. The tuber of the wetland variety is boiled and pounded to create Poi, a staple of traditional Hawaiian meals. The leaves are also used, typically wrapped in Ti leaves along with pork and salted fish to create self-contained meals called Lau lau. Other varieties are common grown decoratively for their brightly colored foliage.
The Ti leaf is also called La'i or Ki (typically refers to the Ti root) and is botanically known as Taetsia fruticosa. The Hawaiians considered the La'i sacred to Lono, the god of farming and fertility. Thus, offerings to Lono were wrapped in Ti leaves. Of course, the Hawaiians, both past and present, used the Ti for a wide variety of purposes such as a wrapper for food, as a container for cooking in the imu (underground oven), as a simple impromptu flute (pu or pulai) for hula, as thatch for huts and as a wrapper for a Hawaiian skirt (pau).
There are three native tree ferns (or Hapu'u) in the Hawaiian islands. They are found from sea level to ten thousand feet or more in rainy habitats and are recognized by their tall, tree-like trunks and gracefully spreading fronds. The largest of the tree ferns (pictured) is called Cibotium menziesii or hapu i'ii, reaching heights of up to 25 feet. The buds of the tree ferns are covered in soft brown hair or "pulu", used by early Hawaiians to embalm the dead and, in the 1800s, used to stuff pillows and mattresses in California. The young uncoiled fronds and the pith of the trunk was also boiled and eaten in times of famine (but they are a bit bitter so not generally recommended in more amicable circumstances).
There are several varieties of Sadleria in the Hawaiian islands. This is the only other fern in the Hawaiian islands that has a sizeable trunk and is occasionally mistaken for the true tree ferns (Cibotium). Pictured here, Sadleria cyantheoides, is also called a'ma'u ma'u and is very common on the slopes of Kilauea. On Maui, the crater, Hale ma'u ma'u is named after this fern, the name meaning house (Hale) of the a'ma'u ma'u fern. This fern is also fairly drought and salt tolerant and is often one of the first plants to colonize recent lava flows (an amazing sight, seeing these ferns sprouting from baren lava crevices). The dead fronds and trunks of the a'ma'u ma'u fern serve as fertile germinating media for the beautiful O'hia tree, slowing transforming baren lava fields into tropical O'hia forest.
There are several varieties and forms of Koa, all found exclusively in the Hawaiian islands -- although related trees are common in Australia (wattles or Haole Koa). The Hawaiian variety is known as Acacia koa and is a member of the Pea Family. Koa is one of the largest trees native to the islands, usually found in drier forest between 1,000 and 6,000 feet elevation. Koa wood was used for a variety of uses but is particularly known for its use in both canoes and for early surf boards. It was also used for the beams/supports in early Hawaiian houses but was not used for calabashes (food containers), apparently due to an unpleasant flavor imparted by the Koa wood. In the 60's, Koa was heavily used for beautiful furniture. However, now that Koa is much less common, it's beautifully grained wood is normally reserved for use in highly prized musical instruments and hand carved sculptures and bowls. Also of note, some of the few remaining honey creeper finches live in the remaining Koa Forest high atop Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Shown here, a Hawai'i Amakihi on Koa.
The Ohia lehua found in the vicinity of Kilauea, from high atop the volcano to the edge of the sea, is also known as Metrosideros collina variety polymorpha, a member of the myrtle family. Most Ohia are red, however, yellow variants also exist in the horticultural trade. Ohia are one of the earlier plants to colonize new lava flows, typically germinating in moist fern litter or on tree fern trunks. The Ohia blossom was considered sacred to Pele, the fire goddess. According to popular superstition, picking the Ohia blossom will result in rain. The O'hia blossom is an abundant source of nectar for the rare and often endangered Hawaiian Honey Creepers (birds) such as the Apapane.
There are actually about a dozen species of Scaveola or Naupaka in the Hawaiian Islands. All, except for the seaside or ocean Naupaka, are found only in the Hawaiian islands. The Naupaka is known for it's half-flower, the two halves, one each of the ocean and mountain Naupaka, when united, representing early Hawaiian lovers of legend. In the legend, two young hula students fell in love, in spite of the kapu or prohibition on relationships between hula students. These students prayed to Laka, the goddess of hula for foregiveness. However, they were pursued and killed in punishment for breaking the kapu. In sympathy, Laka turned the lovers into the mountain and oceanside Naupaka, alone and incomplete unless the two halves of the flowers are united. [Word trivia: the word taboo derives from an Anglicization of the Hawaiian word Kapu, for forbidden].
Arundina graminifolia or Bamboo orchid. There are actually three native species of orchids in the Hawaiian Islands, all of which are very uncommon, quite small and inconspicuous. The more common and decorative orchids found naturalized in the islands were introduced horticulturally and later escaped their garden habitats to make the islands their home. The bamboo orchid, one of the most widespread of these newcomers, was originally introduced for the floral trade (for flower leis) and has long since found widespread success in grassy areas throughout the Hawaiian islands and is found is particularly large stands on the rainy slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa and on the Eastern side of the Big Island of Hawaii.
The Malaysian Ground Orchid or Spathoglottis plicata, another garden escapee, is widespread in a broad variety of habitats ranging from full sun to dense shade. I have even seen these orchids growing in crevaces in new lava in areas with frequent rainfall such as at the new lava flow at Kaimu Beach.
The Nun Orchid or Phaius tankervilliae typically grows in moist partially shaded forest floors among leaf litter. The flowers rise up above the somewhat inconspicuous foliage on tall sturdy stems of white flowers with brown throated lips.
Kukaenene is also found growing on the volcano and is a favorite food of the nene goose. Kukaenene seeds are often found in nene droppings, leading to its Hawaiian name which loosely translates into Nene droppings. The bark is used for a yellow dye and the purple berries (not shown) are used for a purple to black die.
The dwarf variety of 'Ōhelo grows at higher altitudes and is reasonably plentiful in Hawaii Volvano National Park. It is a relative of the cranberry, but, as opposed the the swamp-loving cranberry, grows in lava crevices and in well drained volcanic soil. The berries are edible and vary from tart to quite sweet and contain multiple seeds. A similar looking berry, the Akia, contains only one seed and is poisonous. The 'Ōhelo is also a favorite of the rare Hawaiian nene goose which helps spread the 'Ōhelo seeds. 'Ōhelo was also considered sacred to Pele, the volcano goddess and was often used in offerings to Pele.
Kupaoa, Dubautia scabra, is known for its tiny, fragrant flowers and is often twined into Haku leis. Its fragrance is celebrated in Hawaiian chants. Notably, Kupaoa is one of the early pioneers of the lava flow. Kupaoa's wind-blown seeds settle into cracks in the lava or, as seen here, into pioneering lichens where they take advantage of the added moisture and nutrients.
Kilauea Hedyotis, Kadua centranthoides. These beautiful shrubs have waxy leaves and flowers and grow in and around the farily young lava.
Kalo, Colocasia esculenta, or wetland Taro. Wetland Taro is what is typically boiled and mashed to make Poi.
One of many varieties of Torch Ginger grown in Hawaiian gardens. Shown here is Alpinia purpurata 'Kimi'.
Sesbania Tomentosa or 'Ohai. This very attractive but endangered member of the Pea family is endemic to the main Hawaiian islands as well as to Nihoa and Necker Islands in the Northern Hawaiian chain. It was found in dry forests from sea level to around 2500 feet but has largely been displaced due to habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native plants.
Brighamia insignis or Alula is a member of the Bellflower family (a lobeloid). This critically endangered plant numbers around 50 plants in the wild. It was pollinated in nature by a now-extinct species of hawk-moth. It is, however, is now commercially propagated and is a reasonably easily grown novelty plant in tropical and subtropical climates.
Pineapple, Ananas hybrid. The modern pineapples were derived from Ananas comosus through extensive hybridization and line breeding. Pineapples are bromeliads and the fruit consists of multiple coalesced berries. The modern hybrids have been bred to be sweeter, juicier and more compact than their ancestors. While the Hawaiian pineapple industry has largely gone to the Philippines and Taiwan (canned pineapples), there is still a domestic industry for fresh pineapple and a few pineapple fields still remain even though the last pineapple canning factories closed long ago.
Lo'ulu, Pritchardia species (shown, Pritchardia thurstonii). The Hawaiian native fan palms are generically known by the name Lo'ulu. As opposed to the quite thorny Mexican palms which are common in California, the Hawaiian fan palms have evolved without thorns due to the lack of large indigenous herbivores.
Banyan Tree, Ficus species (perhaps benjamina). Banyan trees sprout from seed just about anywhere a seed can get wedged including in rain gutters and on roof tops. As they grow large, they drop aerial roots that eventually root, thicken and turn into auxiliary trunks, as shown here. This enables banyan trees to spread over a wide area of land in a way few other trees can match. I was told that there was an old banyan on Molokai that covered about 1/4 of a mile in diameter. Could it be true? Perhaps. If you see it, send me a photo!
Coral Tree, Erythrina crista galli, is commonly grown in Hawaii for its fast growth, dense shade, and gorgeous flowers.
Noni, Morinda citrifolia. The noni was used by the Polynesians for food in times of scarcity and also for medicine, e.g., to treat menstrual cramps, bowel irregularities, diabetes, liver diseases, and urinary tract infections. It may also be found as an extract in health food stores.
Royal Poinciana, Delonix regia, is a medium sized tree with dark green ferny leaves, pea pod shaped seed pods and typically deep red-orange flowers. There is also a yellow (aurea) variant, as shown here. The Royal Poinciana is native to Madagascar where it is endangered. However, it is widely cultivated elsewhere including throughout the Hawaiian Islands.
Spider Lilly or Crinum Lilly, Crinum asiaticum. These are native to tropical Asia but are widely used in Hawaii in estate gardens as accent plants. The flowers vary from dark lavender to white.
Traveler's Palm, Ravenala madagascariensys. These magnificent trees grow quite large, creating huge, strikingly graceful fans that sway gently in the breeze.
Cordia subcordata, also known as the Mareer, Kerosene wood, Glueberry, Tou and Kou tree, is shown here in Kapiolani Park, Oahu. This beautiful, glossy-leaved, vibrantly orange-flowered tree, is native to eastern Africa, South Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands. It is salt tolerant but not frost tolerant, its woody seeds floating long distances across the Pacific to germinate on far shores. Its fruit are apparently edible but not particularly flavorful, being occasionally eaten in times of famine. Its wood is soft, durable and easily carved, being historically used by the Hawaiians to make bowls, large calabashes (huge bowls), & utensils due to its ability to hold food without affecting the flavor of the food itself.
Heliconia at the Panaewa Zoo in Hilo. Heliconia are popular yard plants in Hawaii as they grow easily, tolerate wet conditions and produce colorful bracts that last for weeks. They come in various shapes and sizes and are mostly native to South and Central America. In the wild, they are pollinated by hummingbirds. However, as there are no humminbirds in Hawaii, Heliconia in Hawaii are propagated by root cuttings.
Portulaca molokiniensis or 'Ihi is a rare Hawaiian endemic succulent plant native to Molokini and Kaho'olawe where it grows in loose volcanic rock. Luckily, this charming plant is easy to grown by cutting and is commercially propagated for home gardens.