Plants as Immigrants to Hawai’i

The rock walls terracing this are of the garden are about 700 years old.

The rock walls terracing this area of the garden are about 700 years old.

Another great advantage of living in California is that Hawai’i is just around the corner (relatively speaking). While plenty of my Austrian relatives and friends want to make the trip to Hawaii, the journey often seems too long and too expensive in comparison to trips to other exotic locales such as the Maldives from Europe. However, I ran into a lot more Germans at this year’s trip to Hawai’i than ever before and the local Hawaiian newspaper also reported about an Austrian who nearly drowned in Kaua’i. So clearly, more European tourists are showing up on Hawai’i.

Even though this was not my first trip to Hawai’i, I am still fascinated by many of the small details and appreciate each trip I take. So while California has many good traits, the possibility for a quick winter trip to Hawaii is definitely another plus point in my book. At the beginning of the new year, I spent a fabulous nine days with sunshine and temperatures in the 80s while most of Northern California was shrouded in fog and nighttime temperatures close to freezing. I do not just appreciate Hawai’i’s warm climate but all its oddities; and on every trip I still find plenty of things that amaze me. I can never get tired of Hawai’i!

Ocean View from Limahuli Garden

Ocean View from Limahuli Garden

This year, we spent time on Kaua’i, the Garden Island. Just as the name implies, the island offers plenty of unusual plants and thus also several botanical gardens (Google shows eight botanical gardens on Kaua’i). I had a chance to visit Limahuli Garden and Preserve, a National Tropical Botanical Garden in Ha’ena, Kaua’i. It is situated in a 1,000-acre valley with nearly 250 taxa of native plants and birds; about 50 of them are on the verge of extinction. So if you want to see Hawaiian plants, this is the place to visit. The garden is divided into different sections that showcase the suite of plants that cultures carried with them as the migrated to Hawai’i. So many of the plants we think of as typically Hawaiian are actually not native to Hawai’i but were brought to Hawaii. For example, the Polynesians brought their 27 most important plants and four animals (jungle fowl, pigs, rats, and dogs) along on their canoes on their voyages to Hawai’i. Polynesian introductions to Hawai’i include taro, ti, sweet potato, banana, coconut palm, sugar cane, kukui nut tree and many more.

Taro is a Polynesian introduction to Hawai'i. Every part of the plant is edible when cooked.

Taro is a Polynesian introduction to Hawai’i. Every part of the plant is edible when cooked.

After Captain Hook first anchored off the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, many immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines arrived in Hawai’i, especially because of the work on the sugar plantations. Many of the immigrants brought their favorite plants from home to Hawai’i, and many of these plants seem to be so representative of Hawai’i even though these plants are immigrants as well. Some of these plants are plumeria and mango.

Sugar cane is another Polynesian introduction even before it became a commercial crop in the 1800s.

Sugar cane is another Polynesian introduction even before it became a commercial crop in the 1800s.

The garden showed Hawaiian indigenous species, which means they are native to Hawai’i, endemic species, which evolved from native species and are native to Hawai’i only, as well as native species, which reached Hawai’i without the aid of humans but either by wind, wings, or water. Nearly all the native plants are rare and endangered as 114 of Hawai’i’s 1,200 native plant species are already extinct and about 300 have only 50 individuals or less remaining in the wild.

The garden also offers a pleasant walk with stunning ocean views and much information. I have never really considered the impact of immigrants on the plant life of a country, and I was surprised to learn that so many plants that I associate with Hawai’i, such as plumeria and the coconut palm, are actually not that Hawaiian at all.

Details and numbers are from the guidebook provided by Limahuli Garden, revised summer 2013.

The breadfruit is another Polynesian introduction to Hawai'i as staple food in much of Polynesia.

The breadfruit is another Polynesian introduction to Hawai’i as staple food in much of Polynesia.

The autograph tree is a modern introduction to Hawai'i and has become and invasive weed. The leaves are easily marked with a scratch.

The autograph tree is a modern introduction to Hawai’i and has become an invasive weed. The leaves are easily marked with a scratch.

Hala is a native to Hawaii and also other places (indigenous). Fossils of this plant have supposedly also been found in Austria. No this is not a pineapple - even though many think so at first glance.

Hala is a native to Hawaii and also other places (indigenous). Fossils of this plant have supposedly also been found in Austria. No, this is not a pineapple – even though many think so at first glance.,

The banana is a Polynesian introduction, with as many as 70 Polynesian varieties developed in old Hawai'i.

The banana is a Polynesian introduction, with as many as 70 Polynesian varieties developed in old Hawai’i.

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