Tropical Gardening: Leaping lizards, there’s a new kid in town

  • Photo courtesy of Rusty Ipolito The Bahamian Anole can be seen on both sides of Hawaii Island.

Hawaii’s garden recently became home to a new Anole. The one we have seen for years is called the American Chameleon because of its ability to change colors. The new guy is the Bahamian Anole that is dark brown with diamond markings on the back and a bright red dewlap of the male. There are others as well like the Cuban Anole on Oahu. We also have iguanas, at least eight species of gecko, skinks and at least two species of true Chameleon. We have one species of snake called the Island Blind Snake. However, none are native to Hawaii. In fact there are no native land lizards, snakes, frogs, toads or turtles. Some came as hitchhikers, stowaways and in the days when there were few laws, in the pet trade. Now it is illegal to bring in most of these types of animals. Most aforementioned are harmless or even beneficial, but can be a nuisance depending on ones attitude toward the environment. Local folks often think of geckos in the home are good luck, and almost everyone has a warm spot in their heart for the Geico Gecko!

These little creatures do add to the magic of our gardens along with all the non native plants and birds to be found.

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Visitors to our islands are fascinated by the beauty of our gardens. 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.

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 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, 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 used to be forests. Trees like Loulu palms flourished in abundance, but it wasn’t long before the introduction of pigs and rats radically changed things. 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. 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.

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The hala tree is another tree of interest and beauty. Lauhala or leaf of the pandanus plant has probably been used for thousands of years by the Polynesians. 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.

Many native and introduced trees can 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.

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