Kauai: On the Hunt for Native Plants, 2011
We were surprised to learn how few endemic species of plants are really native to Hawaii and that mostly they are hardy shrubs and low trees with thick, drought resistant leaves and gnarly trunks. These plants belie the notion of primitive Hawaiian rain forests and lush glades of tropical flowers, at least on Kauai.
1) One image of Hawaii, a tropical rain forest – these are mostly invasive species near Wailua Falls
The first real native we discovered was in the lower reaches of Waimea Canyon. Like its more famous cousin, the Silversword of Haleakala on Maui, the Iliau flowers once and then dies. The plant is considered to be endangered.
2) A young Iliau
3) The flower, now long since passed
But our education really began at the Limahuli Botanical Garden on the North Shore, whose owners have gone to great lengths to recreate native foliage, all in a site with significant pre-contact archeological terraces and other ruins.
4) The entrance to Limahuli: pre-European and unrestored terraces, probably used for taro
5) Restored walls planted once more with taro
Taro, of course, is a lowly but useful tuber, and countless people all over the Pacific, Latin America (where it is known as cassava or yucca) and even Africa (manioc) have it as a mainstay of their diet. The Polynesians brought the plant to Hawaii, along with many, many others.
At Limahuli the ruins suggest that the ancient Hawaiians created irrigation channels to bring water from higher in the mountains to the lowland fields, much as it was done in Peru.
6) Water channel, very old and perhaps dating to Menehune times
7) The upper valley and ultimate water source
The Menehunes were a mischievous lot. This one is said to have turned to stone after inadvertently being exposed to sunlight.
7) Stone Menehune
Regardless, we were here to look at plants, not wander into tales of little people turned to stone like so many Pacific Islander Lots in a tropical Sodom. Especially delightful was this native fern, resplendent with fiddle-heads:
8) Fiddleheads – sadly I didn’t record the name of this one
Apparently Hawaii had a number of native ferns.
9) ‘Ama’u (Sadleria Cyatheoides)
A few birds scittered in the trees, including this Malaysian introduction, the White-Rumped shama. Released in the 1940s on Oahu, it has now made its way to Kauai. Perhaps, headed west, the bird seeks to return to its homeland.
10) Also known as the Shama thrush
We were pleased for obscure reasons to discover that the Pandanus or Traveler palm is native to Hawaii.
11) Various trees under a rock outcropping
Near the end of our hike we stumbled into what was once one of the planet’s rarest plants, the Alula.
12) Dedicated conservationists nursed the last of these plants in the wild, rappelling down Napali Coast cliff faces to check their status. They collected seeds, luckily enough, since the plant is now extinct in its native habitat. Alula flowers are highly prized as decor on the traditional lei, and it has been cultivated to such an extent in captivity that they are now sold at plant nurseries.
The valley had a commanding view of that North Shore icon, Makana, the mountain better known as Bali Hai because the film “South Pacific” was shot nearby. In pre-contact times young men would climb its heights with logs of the light tropical wood, Papala. When conditions were perfect they would light the wood on fire and hurl it out over the Pacific. Updrafts would cause these great collections of burning logs to soar into the night sky and carry their cargo of embers and fire as much as a mile out to sea.
13) The lower slopes of Makana. One can still imagine the fires burning in the night, drifting with the stars over the sea
And so the realm of the physical merged with that of the spirit. The two planes of existence would disappear soon enough, the islanders discovered.