Tropical Gardening: Hawaii’s gardens reflect our diverse peoples and Valentine’s Day aloha

  • Photo courtesy of Voltaire Moise Rare palms like this unidentified stilt palm specie on Reed’s Island may be found in gardens on Hawaii island thanks to the Palm Society and local nurseries.

With Valentine’s Day this coming Friday, we tend to think of romantic love, but love is much more than romance. It is a state of being we define as aloha.

Most visitors to Hawaii are fascinated by the beauty and diversity of our gardens. What they may not recognize at first is how our gardens express the many cultures and ethnicities of our Aloha State. They usually rave about the palms especially the coconut palms. There are literally hundreds of palms species here that most folks find hard to identify unless they are members of the International Palm Society or the Hawaii Island Palm Society. Once you get hooked into growing palms you may be considered a bona fide palm nut. There was a time when vast forests of native Pritchardia palms flourished from sea level to 5,000 feet elevation. However the introduction of Polynesian pigs and rats led to the demise of all but 24 species today found in isolated locations. Hawaii’s flora is very different than when the first human arrived here.


All the flowering trees like the royal poinciana, rainbow showers, African tulip immediately that catch out attention are relatively new. Hibiscus, bird of paradise, bougainvillea, heliconia, orchids and anthurium species grow in abundance. Then there are the fragrant plumeria, angel trumpets, puakenkene, gingers, jasmines, gardenias and many more combined with warmth and humidity to sweeten the air.

Let us not forget the Hawaiian fruits and nuts like the mango, banana, papaya, avocado, litchi, macadamia, rambutan, guanabana, cherimoya, mountain apple, guava, coffee, pineapple and citrus species. Luckily, we have plant societies and University of Hawaii Master Gardeners that can help us learn more about the myriad of plant species found here. Our Hawaiian gardens represent many diverse cultures with which we share our lives. Many of these plants we associate with Hawaii were introduced in the last 200 years.

What was it like for the first Polynesian pioneers who found and developed these islands? Plants found by the first people were endemic, that is, they evolved here and could not be found anywhere else in the world. Another group of plants were the indigenous species. Indigenous means they were found here before human inhabitants, but were also found in other regions like naupaka, Kou, and Milo that grow all through the coastal tropical Pacific. Indigenous and endemic species are considered native. There weren’t many food and fiber plants until the Polynesians brought what we call the canoe plants. These were the first exotic, non-native species and include the coconut, kalo, ti, breadfruit, banana, sugar cane, Kukui nut, sweet potato, noni, turmeric and may others.

The forests in those earliest days of human activity were very different than when Captain Cook arrived. What is now pasture and grass lands were once forests. Trees like the pritchardias or loulu palms flourished in abundance, but many other native plants disappeared especially after the introduction of plant eating animals like goats, sheep and cattle. We have no real clear records of that time, but throughout Polynesia, it is obvious that humans and the animals and plants humans brought with them have had a tremendous impact on the species that evolved on the many isolated islands of Pacifica. Today, erosion is a big problem on most high islands and the rising ocean is swallowing low atolls that have been the homes of islanders for thousands of years.

We have a wide variety of plants both native and introduced by many different cultures. Of course it is vital to protect our native plants, but global warming and human activity have altered our islands forever. By keeping the lush vegetation an integral part of our communities, we actually do our part to fight pollution and make life more enjoyable. As individuals, one of the easiest ways to decrease the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is to plant trees. There are a number of trees that can help accomplish this purpose. Among the best are natives like the loulu palms, ohia, hala, wiliwili, hoawa, alahe‘e and a‘ali‘i. Other plants, such as the beach and mountain naupaka, are attractive to many birds and also make good ornamentals for a garden. Flowers of the ohia, koa, hau, milo and mamane may even attract some native nectar feeding birds like iiwi, amakihi, apapane, and elepaio.

The hala tree is a particular tree of interest and beauty. Lauhala or leaf of the pandanus plant has probably been used for thousands of years by the Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians. Not only are the leaves used for walls, floor mats, and thatched roofs but modern Polynesians weave purses, shopping bags and hats. Even the parts of the fruit, which resembles a pineapple, were eaten during periods of food shortage. Today, island campers will use the fibrous segments as a toothbrush. The Pandanus family, closely related to palms, is found throughout the old world tropics. There are hundreds of species, from miniature shrubs to large trees. Most Pandanus may be distinguished by their aerial roots. These roots give them the common name of “walking trees.” Here in Hawaii, we have two common native species. The puhala, Pandanus odoratissimus, is found along many coastal areas. The mountain ie‘ie‘, Frecynetia Arnotti, is found climbing vine-like up ohia trees in mauka forests, sometimes 80 feet or more.

Many native and introduced trees may be used to beautify island roads because they are tough and adaptable. Remember that our gardens can and should reflect the best of the Hawaiian culture. At the same time recognizing that the Polynesian migrations around the Pacific evolved as time and the environment demanded. Thus Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Marquesan, Tahitian, Asian, European and m South American influences are also part of the saga of Hawaii and have a prominent place in our gardens.


As we celebrate Valentine’s Day with our loved ones, be reminded of the magnitude of love reflected in our multicultural people and gardens.

For information on creating and maintaining your tropical gardens, contact The University of Hawaii Master Gardener to assist you. In Kona you may call 322-4893 and 981-5199 in Hilo.

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