Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Plant Life

A few million years ago: A spore from a fern somewhere in southeast Asia is released into the wind and carried by a rising current eight miles high into the jet stream, where it is borne eastward. Eventually it drifts down and settles on a barren lava field in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This is one of the ways life came to the Hawaiian Islands. Where barren flows once existed, forests now grow. Insects, seeds, and spiders also reached the islands by riding the air currents, but there were other ways. Migrating or storm-driven birds carried seeds either in their digestive tracts or stuck to their feathers. Pacific Ocean currents transported salt-resistant seeds and rafted insects, plants, and snails on floating debris. Amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, and most mammals were unable to cross the vast expanse of ocean—only the monk seal and hoary bat succeeded. Of the millions of organisms that embarked on this chance voyage, very few made it here, and of those that did, few survived.

Over a span of about 70 million years, plants and animals colonized Hawaii at the rate of roughly one every 70,000 years. These species changed gradually with time—they evolved into new forms that were better adapted to island life. In the absence of predators and competitors found in their former homelands, their survival no longer depended on elaborate defense mechanisms. Those qualities that once protected them proved unnecessary and were eventually lost. Contradictory terms describe these new life forms: nettleless nettles, mintless mints, stinkless stink bugs, and flightless birds.

More than 90 percent of Hawaii's native flora and fauna is endemic—found nowhere else on earth. The island's 100 endemic land birds evolved from as few as 20 original ancestors; a thousand kinds of flowering plants evolved from 272 colonizers; over 1,000 mollusks evolved from at least 22 immigrants; and about 10,000 insect and spider species evolved from 350 to 400 precursors. The astounding diversity of life that flourished on these isolated, once barren islands bears witness to the force of evolution and the tenacity of life.

Use the following guide to identify some of Hawaii's fascinating plant life. The Halema'uma'u Trail provides a tour of these botanical specimens. The Trail takes you through a tree-fern forest and into the heart of one of the world's most active volcanoes. Your walk may begin either on the crater side of the Volcano House Hotel, or at Halema'uma'u. A variety of optional, longer routes may be added. You can obtain a map showing Kilauea summit hiking trails at the Visitor Center. Take a hike, and look for the following plants.

'Ohi'a Lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) 'Ohi'a is the most common and widespread of the Park's native trees. A member of the myrtle family, flower colors range from dark red to light yellow. The apapane, a red native bird, can often be seen feeding on the nectar of the blossoms. The hard wood of the 'ohi'a was used for temple images and poles for temple structures. The 'ohi'a is also believed to be the embodiment of Laka, the goddess of the hula. The nodding of the branches and the adornment of lehua flowers served as teachers to the dancers who mimicked the movements of nature.

Kahili Ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) and Yellow Ginger (H. flavescens). Coming from the Himalayas and India respectively, these plants with highly fragrant flowers have escaped cultivation and are a major concern. The aggressive, shade, tolerant gingers crowd out specialized native species, and disrupt native ecosystems.

Kukaenene (Coprosma ernodeoides) A native relative of coffee, kukaenene is a small, woody, trailing shrub. The shiny black fruits were used to make a dye for kapa (bark cloth), and are the favorite fruit of the nene, our native goose. Although they are not poisonous, they are rarely eaten by man.

Hapu'u (Cibotium sp.) Hawaii has three species of tree ferns, all of which are native. They grow up to 40 feet high in shady, wet forests. One species, hapu'u pulu, has a silky golden fiber growing at the bases of the fronds. Called pulu, the fiber was exported during the late 1800s for pillow and mattress stuffing. Another species, hapu'u 'i'i, has stiff blackish hairs at the bases of the fronds. The tree ferns contain a starchy core that is eaten by the many feral pigs inhabiting the Park. A trough is left where rainwater may collect and provide a breeding place for mosquitoes. The mosquitoes can transmit avian malaria, one cause of the decline and extinction of the native birds of Hawaii.

Wawae'iole (Lycopodium cernuum) The Hawaiian name for this clubmoss means "rat's foot." Like the moa (Psiloturn sp.), It is a primitive plant that reproduces through spores. The wawae'iole is often used in flower arrangements and lei, though the picking of it in native forests may unintentionally lead to the introduction of weeds. Weed seeds, carried on the soles of shoes or stuck to clothing, can be dispersed through the native forest by gatherers or hikers. It is a good idea to scrub the soles of your shoes and pick any "stickers'' off your clothes before hiking in any relatively untouched area.

Ili'ahi (Santalurn sp.) The sandalwood has pale yellowish leaves, which serve as an indication that the tree is a partial parasite. Its roots entwine with those of neighboring plants and obtain some nourishment from them. The flowers are tiny four-parted stars that grow in clusters. Sandalwood was a major export during the early 1800s. Life was disrupted here as a large part of the population went to the mountains in search of the trees that were cut and carried to the shore to be shipped to China. Workers, seeing their families and lands neglected and wanting to end the hard labor of harvesting and transporting the wood, took to cutting and even pulling up seedlings of the plants. Though not common, sandalwood has made a comeback, and can be found at many areas throughout the state.

'Akia (Wikstromeia sp.) These shrubs or small trees have smooth brownish-grey bark marked by leaf scars. The fruits are bright orange, which are sometimes confused with the 'ohelo. The leaves of the 'akia have smooth edges, and the fruits contain one or two large seeds, while the 'ohelo has many tiny seeds and its leaves have toothed edges. The bark of the 'akia provided a fiber that was used to make cordage, and at least one species contains a poison that was used to stun fish in tide pools so they could be easily gathered.

'Ama'u (Sadleria cyatheoldes) This fern looks much like the hapu'u, though the fronds are simple and unbranched. Young fronds are often tinged with red or pink. The 'ama'u also has a starchy core and the plant may grow to ten feet in height. The crater Hale ma'uma'u is said to have gotten its name from a legendary event in which a deity took the 'ama'u fern as a body form to protect himself from the fires of Pele. Halema'uma'u means "house surrounded by the ama'u."

Pukiawe (Styphelia tameiameiae) Pukiawe is a very adaptable shrub, growing from nearly sea level upwards to 10,000 feet. Covered with many tiny greyish leaves, it bears small, round dry fruits in clusters that range in color from white to burgundy. The fruits and young silvery shoots of the plant are used in lei. The smoke from a fire made of the wood purified chiefs so that they'd be able to mingle with the "common people" without harm to their life force or mana.

Uluhe (Dicranopteris linearls) A creeping fern with wiry stems that can form dense thickets, uluhe can be recognized by its fronds, which repeatedly branch by twos. Because of its growth habit, uluhe is a healer of scars left on the landscape by landslides or by trees falling in the forest. As larger plants return, the uluhe is shaded out. The dense growth of the uluhe often conceals cracks in the ground—a very good reason for staying on the trail!

Pa'iniu (Astelia menziesiana). A native lilly whose leaves are covered with silver hairs and bears orange fruits, pa'iniu prefers to grow in shady wet forests, usually as an epiphyte on large trees. Epiphytes use trees for support, obtaining their nourishment from bits of decayed matter caught in the dark, as well as from rain and the air. Pa'iniu is common at certain locations around Kilauea, and lei made of the silvery leaves were taken home by visitors as a sign that they had been to the volcano.

'A'ali'i (Doclonaea sp.) 'A'ali'i can grow either as a shrub or as a small tree up to 30' tall. Its most noticeable feature is its papery winged pods, which grow in clusters and redden as they ripen. The pods were used in lei, and also as a red dye. It is abundant in the drier areas of Puna and Ka'u.

'Ohelo (Vaccinium sp.) There are several different varieties of 'ohelo found here at Kilauea. The most common is a small bush with serrated leaves that bears clusters of juicy berries ranging in color from yellow to red. The 'oleho is the embodiment of Hi'iaka, one of the sisters of Pele. Its fruits are considered sacred to Pele, and even today there are those who will not eat the fruit or even pass through the Kilauea area without making an offering of 'ohelo to Pele.

Kupaoa (Dubautia sp. or Railliardia sp.) Kupaoa, a shrub, is a composite and is related to the silversword. The flowers may either be white or yellow and have a pleasing fragrance. Its leaves are stiff, pointed, and shiny bright green. Its name implies a lasting fragrance, and parts of the plant were used in the old days to scent kapa (bark cloth).

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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