Plants of Kanaha

Plants of Kanaha

Where did the first plants come from:  One widely held theory believes that Hawaii sprang from the ocean as a volcanic peak, and eventually had permanent above water land area. It would have had occasional rainfall, and salt spray, and the inter-tidal shoreline would have been populated first with seaweed. But the land based plants had to get here from somewhere else. Maybe the first plants arrived here as seeds carried in high altitude air currents, microscopic fungus spores could travel this way too. Some seeds or living plant material were probably carried on the backs of birds, or in their bellies, and generously deposited in bird droppings. Some seeds can survive floating on the ocean, and come ashore on distant shores, like the Niu (coconut) which does this. The coconut (which is a seed) floats well and can survive for up to 4 months at sea and still germinate. It is an interesting feature of some plants that their seeds actually benefit from being in salt water for a period of time before germinating. Another mechanism for species distribution is the tsunami. Tsunamis can dislodge large trees, logs and floating debris from one location, a continent or island, and set it adrift. Large floating trees are floating rafts that could transport plant life, insects and maybe even small creatures like geckos. These processes take tens of thousands of years to build up a variety of plant life that we see in Hawaii today. After the first living creatures arrived they were kept in isolation to grow and evolve into unique versions of themselves. Species that landed on different Hawaiian islands would sometimes diverge and become entirely different species. Some species even evolved differently on different sides of a mountain ranges or on the different peaks, separated by valleys. Micro climates created micro ecosystems, that pushed diversity even further.

Polynesian introduced Plants: The first people to come to the islands were Polynesian voyagers, and they brought with them food supplies, and seedlings  plants and animals. The needed to be able to start a settlement and have the useful plants from their homeland available to them. Their Plants may have been intended for food, medicinal, functional, or even ceremonial use. We know that many Hawaiian plants have great utility and many different uses (see the list at end of this post). Polynesian plants are now distributed all over the pacific. Testimony to the success of Polynesian voyagers, and their ability to navigate and colonize distant lands.

Hawaiian Canoe Plants: The plants that the Polynesian voyagers brought with them in their canoes are sometimes called the “canoe plants”. Estimates of the number of different type plants brought to Hawaii by early Polynesians is thought to be around 32 species. There is some debate as to whether the first coconuts in Hawaii were here already, even though the Polynesians would have almost certainly brought them also. Several other species, like Milo, and Hau, Kou, which are widespread coastal species fairly common throughput Polynesia, might have also migrated here by themselves. The Canoe Plants include;`Ape, `Awa, `Awapuhi, Hau, Ipu, Kalo, Kamani, Ki, Ko, Kou, Kukui, Mai`a, Milo, Niu, Noni, `Ohe, `Ohi`a, `Ai, `Olena, Olona, Pia, `Uala, Uhi, `Ulu, Wauke.

Alien Species: All plants that were brought in by people are considered Alien species. The Polynesians introductions were also called “canoe plants” are well suited to the tropical climate and have been cultivated for hundreds of years. The arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, marks the beginning of the early European introductions. Cook deliberately planted several food new food species and brought in some animals too. Some other species may have arrived by accident. Weeds, plants, and seeds can travel on ships from foreign lands, and have a way of spreading wherever they go.

Native Plants impacted by Livestock: Captain Cook brought with him livestock and several plants species that he left here, and they changed the island biology for ever. Notably he left a gift of pigs and goats, with instructions that they be left alone and be allowed to multiply. These animals did multiply and ultimately ran wild. Feral Pigs and Goats started eating all types of native plants, and began causing soil erosion, and are implicated in including destroying most of the the Koa forests, along with other introduced livestock. Early livestock introductions included several types ungulates (cloven foot animals) including Goats, Pigs and Cattle. Today there an estimated 5000 exotic species in the Hawaiian Islands.

Early European Plant Introductions: Many early explorers collected plant specimens wherever they went to take back for study in their home countries. Captain Cook’s ship already had many species already on board booth collected on his previous ports of call and what he brought with him from England. Cook in his journal stated that seeds of; melons, pumpkins (cucurbita pepo), and onions (Allium cepa) were planted on his first visit in 1778.

Settlers and Traders: When traders, settlers, and travelers came to Hawaii they brought fruit trees, and ornamental plants for their gardens. Businessmen and entrepreneurs who wanted to farm here, brought in crops and plants that they wanted to farm here. And sometimes when those crops failed, more species and varieties of foreign plants were brought in and attempted to be used.

Cattle Ranchers: Ranchers introduced fountain grass, native to North Africa, and mullein. After 1905, they introduced kiawe as another cattle feed. Kiawe trees are a terrible blight on the Hawaiian landscape, they are thorny and unplesent trees that spread quickly and can survive in arid climates by sucking up every last drop of available water, usually at the expense of the other (native) plants surrounding them. Kiawe trees are slowly being eradicated at KKanaha and replaced with Better suited local and native trees. Suffice to say all of the plants that the cattle ranchers have introduced have long since run wild and are way out of control, as tenacious invasive species. And unfortunately the cycle is about to begin all over again as a new plant for cattle feed is about to be introduced into Maui’s ecosystem, “Sorghum”. There are plans to turn Maui’s former sugar cane fields into Sorghum fields. the sorghum is intended to be used as cattle feed. So this is how the cycle of another exotic species gets started, with little thought to the long term biological consequences.

Invasive Species & Biological Controls: Some crops and supplies brought in pests, insects and diseases. Biological controls were introduced to deal with pests and diseases. this lead to more alien species being released in the islands. Alien species have no natural enemies, here so that usually thrive and out compete native species, so a normal ornamental house plant from the mainland, would become a fast growing invasive weed here is a short time.

Supplying Sailing Ships: As Hawaii became a port of call for whaling and trading ships, there was a need to restock these ships with water and food. Whalers wanted more than the local diet of fish and poi, so there was a market for fruits and vegetables, and livestock.

Indigenous, Endemic, Endangered native Plants: There are many rare and endangered plants in Hawaii, they are under a lot of competition from exotics. There is a growing interest in Hawaiian native Plants, and a responsibility to ensure that they do not become extinct. More and more public parks, gardens, and open spaces are being returned to a more natural state. Exotic ornamental plants are gradually being replaced with native species. And also in the shoreline areas, we are using native species to help stabilize sand dunes and to prevent erosion and soil loss.

Specialized birds and bees need specific plants: Native plants have the added benefits of providing habitat for native insects and animal species. Many insects will only live on, and reproduce in specific native species. there is a lot of specialization among native species, and they need insects to pollinate the particular plant and the native insects and animals need a specific plant for food. There is also a newly discovered microbiology that is also discovered working in the soil and below ground, certain types of organisms need the dead parts of a specific plant to live, and in return supply nutrients back to the plant.

 This is a list of some of our favorite plants at Kanaha Beach, each plant is listed twice,once with the common name first, and than with the scientific name first:
Aalii (Dodonaea viscosa)  Native : Indigenous
AKIA (Wikstroemia uva-ursi)  Native : Endemic
Akiaki (Sporobolus virginicus)   Native : Indigenous
Aweoweo (Chenopodium oahuense)  Native : Endemic
Beach pea, nanea (Vigna marina)  Native : Indigenous
Chenopodium oahuense (Aweoweo)  Native : Endemic
Coconut palm, niu (Cocos nucifera)  Non-Native : Polynesian
Cocos nucifera (Coconut palm, niu)  Non-Native : Polynesian
Cordia subcordata (Kou)  Native : Indigenous
Cordyline fruticosa (Ti leaf, ki)  Non-Native : Polynesian
Dodonaea viscosa (Aalii)   Native : Indigenous
Dwarf naupaka (Scaevola coriacea)  Native : Endemic
Erythrina sandwicensis (WILIWILI)  Native : Endemic
Gossypium tomentosum (Mao, Hawaiian cotton) Native : Endemic
Heliotropium anomalum var. argenteum (Hinahina, hinahina ku kahakai, nohonohopuuone, pohinahina) Hina Hina
Hibiscus brackenridgei (Mao hau hele)  Native : Endemic
Hibiscus ovalifolius (Rock’s hibiscus)  Non-Native : Naturalized
Hibiscus ovalifolius (Rock’s hibiscus)  Non-Native : Naturalized
IHI (Portulaca lutea) Native : Indigenous
IHI (Portulaca Molokiniensis)  Native : Endemic
IHI (Portulaca villosa) Endemic
ILIAHI ALOE (Santalum ellipticum)  Native : Endemic (Iliahialoe, coast sandalwood)
Ilima (Sida fallax)  Native : Indigenous
Ipomoea indica (Koali awa)   Native : Indigenous
Ipomoea pes-caprae (POHUEHUE)
Ipomoea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis (Pohuehue, beach morning glory)
Jacquemontia ovalifolia (PAU O HIIAKA) Endemic
Jacquemontia sandwicensis (Pau o Hiiaka) Native : Endemic
Koali awa (Ipomoea indica)  Native : Indigenous
KOU (Cordia subcordata)   Native : Indigenous
Lycium sandwicense (OHELO KAI)   Native : Indigenous
MAO (Gossypium tomentosum)  Native : Endemic  (Hawaiian cotton)
Mao hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei)  Native : Endemic
MILO (Thespesia populnea)   Native : Indigenous?
Myoporum sandwicense (Naio)   Native : Indigenous
Naio (Myoporum sandwicense)   Native : Indigenous
Nama sandwicensis (Hinahina kahakai)  Native?
Nanea, Beach pea (Vigna marina)  Indigenous
NAUPAKA (Scaevola taccada)   Native : Indigenous
Nicotaina Glauca (Tree Tobacco) status = Non-native Invasive, (But it is an important Host plant, for endangered moth)
Niu, Cocos nucifera   Non-Native : Polynesian
OHAI (Sesbania tomentosa)   Native : Endemic
OHELO KAI (Lycium sandwicense)   Native : Indigenous
PAU O HIIAKA (Jacquemontia ovalifolia) Endemic
POHINAHINA (Vitex rotundifolia)  Native : Indigenous
POHUEHUE (Ipomoea pes-caprae)
POPOLO (Solanum nelsonii)   Native : Endemic
Portulaca lutea (Ihi)  Native : Indigenous
Portulaca Molokiniensis (IHI)  Native : Endemic
Portulaca villosa (IHI) Endemic
Santalum ellipticum (ILIAHI ALOE)   Native : Endemic
Scaevola coriacea (Dwarf naupaka)  Native : Endemic
Scaevola taccada (Naupaka)   Native : Indigenous
Sesbania tomentosa (OHAI)   Native : Endemic
Sida fallax (Ilima)  Native : Indigenous
Solanum nelsonii (Popolo) Native : Endemic
Sporobolus virginicus (Akiaki)   Native : Indigenous
Thespesia populnea (MILO)    Native : Indigenous?
Tournefortia argentea (Tree heliotrope)   Non-Native : Naturalized
Tree Heliotrope (Tournefortia argentea)   Non-Native : Naturalized
Tree Tobacco (Nicotiana Glauca)   status?? Introduced : Invasive (host plant for endangered Blackburn Moth)
Uhaloa (Waltheria indica)   Native : Indigenous?
Vigna marina (Beach pea, nanea)  Native : Indigenous
Vitex rotundifolia (Pohinahina)   Native : Indigenous
Vitex trifolia (Vitex) Non-native : cultivated  (?Misidentified pohinahina?)
Waltheria indica (Uhaloa)   Native : Indigenous?
Wikstroemia uva-ursi (Akia)  Native : Endemic
WILIWILI (Erythrina sandwicensis)  Native : Endemic
Native = This means they are natural to the area, they are from here.
Indigenous =  a species is defined as indigenous to a given region or ecosystem if its presence in that region is the result of only natural process, with no human intervention.
Endemic = Endemic means they are found nowhere else. Endemic means exclusively native to the biota of a specific place.
Polynesian = Polynesian plants were brought here by Hawaii’s first settlers. Also known as the “Canoe Plants”.
Cultivated = Cultivated plants are used deliberately, but may have escaped into the wild.
Alien = Alien plants got here after first contact, usually defined as 1778 the arrival of Captain Cook.
Endangered = Endangered plants are low in number so that the species is threatened. They have special legal protection too.


Interesting Etymology:

The species name sandwicensis refers to the “Sandwich Islands,” as the Hawaiian Islands were once called, and named by James Cook on one of his voyages in the 1770s. James Cook named the islands after John Montagu (The fourth Earl of Sandwich) for supporting Cook’s voyages.

Ilima Papa plant at Kanaha Beach
Ilima Papa at Kanaha Beach


Scaevola taccada (Naupaka)
Naupaka (Scaevola taccada)


KAUNAOA (Cuscuta sandwichiana)
KAUNAOA (Cuscuta sandwichiana)


 Tournefortia argentea (Tree heliotrope)
Tournefortia argentea (Tree heliotrope)


Sesuvium portulacastrum (Akulikuli, sea purslane)
Sesuvium portulacastrum (Akulikuli, sea purslane)


ILIAHI ALOE (Santalum ellipticum)
ILIAHI ALOE (Santalum ellipticum) at Kanaha Beach


A sample of seeds that regularly wash ashore at Kanaha beach


Anapanapa (colubrina asiatica)


MAO (Gossypium tomentosum)
MAO (Gossypium tomentosum) at Kanaha Beach


Ornamental Hibiscus (non-native) eastern Kanaha Park


Here is a PDF of Kanaha Plants from Hear with some pictures:

Here is a link to the Canoe Plants website:

Uses for Hawaiian Plants:

* Polynesian Introduced Scientific Name: Cocos nucifer Hawaiian Name Niu This is probably  both the most recognizable palm tree and Hawaiian plant in the world.  The  Hawaiians used this plants’ fronds extensively for weaving.  The fruit can also be eaten, in green form as a jello, or brown form as a tough meat.  Incredibly, the … Continue reading →
*Polynesian Introduced Scientific Name: Cordyline terminalis Hawaiian Names: Ki, Ti This plant was another introduction by the Hawaiians  to  Hawaii.  They used the Ti plant had a wide range of uses, ranging from, wrappings for food, thatching, medical purposes,  plates, and clothes.  The plant also was considered sacred to the god of agriculture ( Lono) … Continue reading →
* Polynesian Introduced Scientific Name: Colocasia esculent Hawaiian Name: Kalo This plant represented the God Kane who the Hawaiians considered the creator of all life. The tuber provided that life for the Hawaiians, because of it’s use as by far the common staple of Hawaiian diet. Taro is purple potato like starch that was often … Continue reading →
* Polynesian Introduced Scientific Name: Hibiscus tiliaceus Hawaiian Name  Hau The Hau plants normally looks like a twisting mess of curved branches and 5 pedaled flowers. These curved branches were often used in creating outriggers for canoes due to it’s shape and light weight. The plant was and still is very common and it’s bark … Continue reading →
* polynesian introduced Scientific Name: Pandanus tectorius Hawaiian Name: Hala, Pu Hala This plant is easily recognizable through its droopy leaves and the pineapple like appearance of it’s fruit. The mangrove like bottoms allows the hala to filter out small amounts of salt water and survive well on the coastline. The Hawaiians main use of … Continue reading →
* Polynesian Introduced Scientific Name: Broussonetia papyrifer Hawaiian Name: Wauke The Hawaiians did not have cotton or mammal hair to weave cloth so instead they relied or bark cloth(Kapa). The Wauke was the primary plant he Hawaiians used for making such cloth.  They used Kapa and the Wauke for bedding, ceremonies, clothes, and wrapping the … Continue reading →
*Polynesian introduced Scientific Name: Pittosporum hosmeri Hawaiian Name Aleurites moluccana This common plant has distinct light colored leaves that help this plant stand out in a forest. Its Hawaiian translation is ” light” because it’s seeds were extensively burned due to its high oil content. The spreading crushed nuts in small ponds helped increase visibility … Continue reading →
Scientific name Touchardia latifolia Hawaiian Name Olona The Hawaiians specifically cultivated this plant for its cordage.  It has now been found to be one of the strongest natural fibers in the world. The Hawaiians stripped and soaked the inner bark into cordage for use in fishing lines, attaching adz heads to handles, weapons and repair.
Scientific Name: Acacia koa Hawaiian Name: Koa This iconic plant is known for it’s sickle shaped leaves, but is often confused with Australian eucalypts which  is very similar. To tell the difference one can break a leaf  off and see if it smells like eucalyptus or grass. Hawaiians actually used the elepaio bird to check … Continue reading →


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