Wildflowers Grow In Profusion on Maui
Many Brilliant Varieties are Found on Island
By DAVID FLEMING
(From a 1935 special edition of The Maui News celebrating
the opening of the road to Haleakala Crater )
Often we hear it said that Hawaii is noticeably deficient in wildflower life; to the malihini who follows along beaten tourist tracks and even to those who have lived here long, but whose vacations have limited their travels to the lower elevations and more cultivated sections of the country and whose avocations center about the of bridge table, this statement may go unchallenged; but for the lover of nature who goes about with his eyes open, and particularly so if he has spare hours for mountain tramps away from the haunts of man, a world of unsurpassed beauty awaits.
True it is that rarely do we have the carpets of a single species of wildflower such as in their seasons covers the meadows in colder climes, but we have some wildflowers at all times, with no periods of months at a time absolutely blank; in fact, it is during our “winter” and “spring” months when temperature is mildest and moisture most plentiful that our low elevation floral is as its best. And a few days after the first “Kona” of the season, millions of seeds of grasses, weeds, and shrubs of all kinds from which we get beautiful bloom, burst into life, though at a season when our friends in the States can’t see a single wildflower except in picture books!
Here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2000 miles from the nearest large body of land, it is wonderful how many species of plants go to make up your indigenous flora. It is probable that Polynesian navigators in prehistoric times brought with them to their newly discovered islands in the northeast, such plants as taro, sweet potato, coconut, sugar cane, olona, awa, ki, banana, wauke, and pandanus, since each of these was of importance in the every-day life of their homelands; but by what agencies did all of our other indigenous plants obtain their first foothold on this out of the way spot? The answer is, by ocean currents and winds, and by birds. Lying in the northeasterly current of the Pacific that flows past Hawaii for about nine months in the year, and exposed to the northeast trades, drift of all kinds from the Pacific northwest reaches our shores-with the southerly gales of winter, the body of the equatorial counter current shifts north as far as Hawaii and deposits on our shores much material picked up off the coasts of South and Central America; and it is due to this current that we have strong Andean influences in our flora. Migratory birds, such as the plover, the duck and the curlew, have also added materially to our list of plant immigrants of the early period. Recent experiments made along these lines have proven that birds, as well as small boys, are not the spotlessly clean creatures that books (and their mothers) would have them be-that they carry adhering to their feathers and feet quantities of soil and fine plant seed; and no doubt the first bath in a pond to a tired plover of duck after his long flight in fall back from Kamchatka or Alaska to sunny Hawaii, has meant the introduction of many a plant new to Hawaii. Not only that, but the last crop full of seeds picked up prior to this long flight is responsible for much of our upland plant life.
A material factor acting in favor of a varied plant life in Hawaii is the variation in climate to be found here-from sea level to 2 ½ miles above-from torrid heat at seal level on the leeside of our island, to the almost perpetual snow on the summits-from “bone-dry” to oozing swamps and bogs-all within a few miles or hours of each other.
The advent of the white man tolled the death knell to much of our indigenous flora. Lowlands formerly covered with dense vegetation almost to shore line, excepting on the lee side of the islands where rainfall was at a minimum, and plant life seasonal, were burned off and planted to profitable crops. The same change took place in the middle belt, where cattle were allowed to destroy thousands of acres of virgin forests and mountain land; and at the highest levels, goats broken away from domestic herds found a haven and multiplied by the thousands, denuding vast tracts that should have been held as sponge areas for water conservation (Private owners are now waking up to the seriousness of the situation, and are making costly but successful efforts to remove cattle and goats form our higher water sheds; and it is high time that the territory should begin a campaign of eradication, not merely control, ere it be too late. Glaring examples of too prolonged delay are plentiful). These high elevation forest and brush covered mountain tops were, prior to the arrival of Vancouver with his livestock, the homes of many of Hawaii’s rarest and most beautiful indigenous flowers. But alas, many are now gone, never to return-only here and there are straggling survivors to tell the story of a glorious past.
Nor are the indigenous flowers alone becoming rare, but knowledge concerning them is becoming hard to obtain. With the passing of the canoe maker the dye maker, the herb doctor, and the crafty bird catcher, each of whom in prosecution of his business had to be an expert naturalist, and who by reason of his employment spent much time surrounded by plant life, knowledge of Hawaiian plants and flowers has also passed; and sad to say the younger generation knows little of nothing of the nature, or even the name of the plants native in his own country. Fortunate it is that such botanists as Manzies, Wawra and Millebrand writing in earlier years, left us such complete works on the subjects; and Rock in his recent work, The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands, has described thoroughly all those flowering trees coming under his topic that remain at this time.
Of an estimated 400 species of indigenous flowering plants formerly in the territory, possibly not over 100 are reasonably well-known today! Some species are found on all the islands, while other species may be found on one island only and even then within narrow districts. Still other plants have made the best of it, and attempted to thrive under all conditions, naturally changing general appearance and habit of growth under changing environment. Witness the Ohia Lehua a fine tree on the windward sides of all islands at anywhere near 1,500 feet level, dwarfed down to a trailing shrub on exposed ridges at 6,000 feet, but with even more brilliant bloom than under the milder conditions! Or take the delicate Naupaka, a trailing bush on scorched sand hills near the shore, with its soft white fruits and dainty fine-petaled blossom, which is split when opening, to give the flower the appearance of being only one half of a 10 petaled flower; at 3,000 feet in the wet forests the Naupaka is an erect bush-almost a small tree, but maintains its split blossom with little variation. The rock climber, Alaalawainui, near sea level is a delicate little creeper; at 5,000 feet it maintains its beautiful variegated leaves but is an erect plant, 12 to 18 inches high, and a heavy humus feeder.
Kauai, the oldest island of the group its mountain Waialeale and record breaking rainfall, can boast of the most varied indigenous plant life; in turn of age follow the Waianae mountain on Oahu, Mauna Loa on Molokai, Kukui on West Maui, and the Kohala Mountains on Hawaii; while the Koolau range on Oahu, Olokui on Molokai, and Haleakala on Maui, belong to a more recent age-Mauna Kea, still more recent with Hualalai and Mauna Loa still younger information, speaking geologically. Following Kauai in varied plant life is probably West Maui with its advantage of extremes of wet and dry; but down the line on every mountain, event to Mauna Loa, infant though it be, may be found much interesting material.
Fondness of the ancient Hawaiian for flowers was noted by many of Hawaii’s early visitors, and this love of flowers stays with the race even to this day. In olden times, as well as today, any hamlet or hut no matter how humble, had a few plants of lei-making flower growing about; and Lei day was observed everyday, and on every possible occasion; nor were flowers worn for the beautiful color effect alone but for the sentiment attach to them, and the serf wearing (when he dared) a lei of beautiful mamo felt himself every inch a King!
Many of the plants commonly seen today are of recent introduction (since the discovery of the islands by Cook); listed below are some of the indigenous flowering plants that may be found on the lowlands of Maui.
Ilima: a bush two to five feet high, with a golden yellow flower-a favorite flower among lei-makers. Blooms all season except in extreme drought.
Koali Awahia: (Wild Morning Glory) opening in the morning a beautiful blue and gradually changing to a pink before closing in the evening. The stems and roots of this plant were much and successfully used medicinally as a counter-irritant and to allay pain. The varied Convolvulus family is the natural food of the large green worm which later becomes the sphinx.
Pohuehue: Another member of the Convolvulus family, clambering over the glaring sand hills, binding them down. This plant with its large lavender flower is badly attacked by the recently introduced parasite “Dodder”.
Pilikai: Still another member of the Convolvulus, closely related to the Pohuehue-and bearing equally beautiful blossoms.
Uala: The homely Sweet Potato-with its very delicate lavender and white flower-next to Taro, the main article of diet among the early Hawaiians. Formerly there were about 50 named varieties of this plant.
Puakala: The common White Thistle, a member of the Poppy family. The seed of this plant is particularly tenacious, and has been known to be dormant in the soil for over 30 years, awaiting favorable conditions for germination. The roots of this plant were used medicinally in olden times.
Ohai: Indigenous member of the Sesbania family. Seasonal shrubs. Formerly plentiful on lower Kula, but probably now extinct in that locality. Two varieties, red and white, spring up after rains but are destroyed by cattle.
Mao: Hawaiian wild cotton-still common in a few of the driest and more rugged sections where cattle have not entered; bears a very pretty yellow flower.
Aeae: A marsh lover. The delicate red and pink fruit is more attractive than the rather inconspicuous flower.
Kolokolo: Thrives on the drifting sands, under the most adverse conditions. The attractive blue blossoms and silvery green leaves are a pleasant relief to the eye where other vegetation is scorched. Leaves of this plant were used four seasoning.
Naupaka: Grows with Kolokolo. The lopsided white flower is quite unique. The juicy fruits are said to be eaten by birds.
Uhaloa: A common field weed, after land has been broken for cultivation. The plant, pounded, was used extensively in olden times as medicine, and for caulking canoes.
Hauhele: Nowadays rarely seen –a soft Hibiscus, with prickly leaves and stems and a beautiful pink flower.
Paupilo: Now a very rare plant-surviving only in cliffs or in country so rugged as to protect it from cattle or goats. The beautiful and fragrant white flower with a green pistil and pollen laden stamens opens in the evening and closes with the dawn.
Ahuhu: A dainty leguminous plant, with fine white blossom. The plant, crushed, was extensively used in capturing rock fish, the narcotic effect of a small quantity when placed in crevices where fish had taken refuge, being enough to stupefy them completely. After capture and placing them in fresh water they “come to.”
Mamo: Formerly two varieties were known here-the wet country plant, somewhat different in growth, but comparatively alike in bloom. The flower had much sentiment attached and was a favorite among chiefs and royalty.
Kakalaioa: The “Wait-a-bit” vine. Grows in rocky, dry places; bearing clusters of pretty blossoms. The horrid curved thorns along the stems are inclined backwards, and any one that carelessly gets “hooked” had better stop at once. The marble-like seeds were once used as playthings by children.
Nohu: A favorite decorative flower, once it was picked. Ripe seeds and flowers are to be found on a plant at one time, but the seed cases bear sharp thorns, that rather took the joy from the life of the barefooted would-be lei-maker.
Akia: This sprawling shrub existing on poorest soil in most exposed locations, bears in season a heavy cover of clusters of small greenish yellow flowers, followed in due season by bright red berries, said to be poison for human beings but readily eaten by birds.
Oi: Said by old timers to be one of the few indigenous weeds yet fairly plentiful. It grows in open country, often to the exclusion of grasses. The delicate forget-me-not like flowers are borne on slender spikes; and was it not for the fact that the plant is a pest, it might be considered somewhat attractive.
Awapuhi: Wild “Ginger;” grows in large patches in the open forests at lower elevations-likes plenty of moisture. The strong scented yellow flowers attract the moth to the fermented nectar of the more matured blooms, and after tasting ti, they get so thoroughly intoxicated that they are to be found dead, days afterward, hanging by the proboscis to the faded blossom.
Among the flowering indigenous lowland trees may be mentioned:
Hau: Thriving from sea level to about 1,000 feet elevation, a lover of warmth, and calling for a plentiful supply of water for its roots, the Hau is one of Hawaii’s handsomest trees. The large yellow blossoms, with dark center, which open in morning change to a dull red as the day progresses and close at sundown-open every day of the year, and often in vast numbers. The wood, light in weight, was used in making arms of outrigger canoes.
Kou: One of the formerly common thought much appreciated trees, bearing clusters of brilliant yellow flowers. From this tree were made the choicest calabashes, and the wood was in demand at all times for this purpose. Of late years this tree has been subjected to all the ravages of a small caterpillar which periodically defoliated the tree often to the point of extermination, so now it is seldom seen. The port of Honolulu was formerly called Kou from the number of these tress which grew in or about the early settlement.
Milo: Another tree, the wood of which, though softer, was even more beautiful than Kou and used for calabash making. The yellow flowers and glossy green leaves make an attractive shade tree.
: An ugly tree growing in dry and hot localities somewhat umbrella shaped, destitute of leaves for most of the year. Following the first winter rains, the bud breaks into beautiful red blossom before a single leaf has appeared. The seeds are a brilliant scarlet, about the size of a garden bean; the wood is light as cork and was used for outriggers of canoes and for net floats.
Ohaiai: Or Mountain Apple, grows in sheltered and well watered locations not for from the sea shore. The flowers appear in clusters on the trunks and along branches-not on the extremities as is usually the case. Both ripe fruit and flower may be on the same tree at one time. The fluffy pinkish red flower and deep red fruit are often hard to distinguish from each other at a distance.
Noni: A small tree or shrub furnishing dye in olden times. The fruit is more noticeable than the small white flower and was sometimes used as an article of diet in time of want. Both flower and ripe fruit may be found on the tree at one time.
Turning now to the middle section from 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet elevation we note the following trees, vines or shrubs:
Ohia Lehua: This, together with Koa, forms the greater part of the native forest. Ohia thrives at greater elevations but it is at its best about 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet. Its beautiful crimson blossoms make it a favorite with all flower lovers but picking of these blossoms was said to bring on rain.
Koa: A Hawaiian Acacia-a large spreading tree, with small fluffy yellow flowers. Presumably destruction of the original forest cover of ferns and other underbrush by cattle, exposing shallow roots to sunlight and evaporation, has weakened these trees so that they, as well as the Ohia with which they grow naturally are dying off rapidly.
Ieie: A climber closely related to the “Lauhala” or “Hala.” At the terminal of each branch a spiral of long leaves bears in its center a gaudy inflorescence, which expands to six or seven inches diameter before it fades. Cattle and horses are both fond of the leaves and this no doubt accounts for the disappearance of ieie from much of the country in which it was formerly common.
Pioi: A mountain vine with clusters of pale green flower. The vine is very tough and was used as rope in olden times.
Nukuiwi: Another climber with clusters of delicate wine colored flowers; plant was used as was the Pioi.
Kokio: Three varieties of Hibiscus closely allied to some of the cultivated varieties of today-white, brick red and deep red. The two first named are probably extinct on Maui as wild flowers, but the last is still to be found in very limited quantity near the head of Ukumehame valley where it reaches the size of a small tree. Unlike our modern Hibiscus, all indigenous varieties have a marked fragrance.
Ukiuki: A member of the Lilly family growing in reasonably dry location at about 2,000 feet elevation. The flowers are small and greenish, but contrast well with the brilliant blue berries.
Hoi: A climber that bears large potato-like tubers on the stem simultaneously with its blossoms. The blossom itself is very minute, on drooping stems 12 to 15 inches long, but is so delicate as to be very attractive.
Aalii: A shrub a low elevation, reaching the size of a small tree at 5,000 feet. The flower is quite insignificant but the seed covering is of a deep red color and produced in such a quantity as to give an attractive appearance to the tree.
Naenae: Several plants go by this name varying between a small tree 10 or 15 feet high growing back of Kaanapali bearing in summer handsome pyramid shaped masses of yellow flower, to flowering shrubs growing near the summit of Haleakala.
Leaving the middle section, we enter the higher lands where yet indigenous flora is to be found in localities protected from the ravages of cattle or goats. Under the shade of the trees and ferns and making up the heavy forest cover on the windward sides of the mountains, we find some of Nature’s rarest gems; and out in the open up to 9,000 feet we find the loveliest of all. At about 7,000 feet the Ohia tree has reached its limit, and there is the usual cover of the Kawau and Ohelo, neither with prominent flower but both beautiful when in fruit, except in protected nooks where ferns and shrubs may abound. Here we find Mamane with its clusters of golden yellow flowers and in damp nooks the Akala with its lavender flower and dark red berry.
Among the many indigenous small flowering plants to be found at these higher elevations we may list a few.
Kolokolo Kuahiwi: A plant rarely seen by man since its home is in the wildest and most inaccessible spots; growing among tall grasses and other shrubs, it may not be noticed, but is one of the choicest and sweetest of our mountain flowers. To pick the sweet smelling dark purple flowers is said to bring on rain immediately. (A fairly safe bet at any time in those localities).
Ohenaupaka: On the wildest windswept ridges as well as in the sheltered forest we find this shrub with beautiful curved drooping yellow blossoms.
Puahanui: Two different plants appear to go by this name; one an erect shrub of the heavily covered rain forest bearing clusters of delicate lavender blossoms; the other a small tree of large shrub with soft stout branches, bearing rather inconspicuous flowers which are followed by a cluster of pretty red berries much sought for by the native birds. The confusion of these two plants under one name could not have occurred in olden times when knowledge of plants and flowers was widespread.
Akaakaawa: An indigenous Begonia. Delicate beyond words with stems so tender that the plant grows only in the most sheltered of locations, often in a spray of a waterfall and in absolute shade. It is doubtful if it ever grew on west Maui, but has recently been transplanted there from the Koolau gap.
Paninui: Another member of the Lilly family growing plentifully in the open at about 5,000 feet elevation. This plant furnished food for “Alexandarii,” one of the choicest land shells found on west Maui.
: The “Silversword.” Driven back by the ravages of cattle and goats, this plant may rarely be found except in the more inaccessible portions of the Crater of Haleakala. No one can describe the beauty of a full grown Silversword plant with its stem studded with drooping yellow blossoms-it must be seen to be appreciated. Several varieties of this plant are found on Maui ranging from the true Silversword of Haleakala with its glistening coat of silver, down through the Wilkesias to the dwarf species found of Kukui. The Haleakala has recently been introduced on Kukui but does not appreciate the excessive rainfall in that location. The Wilkesia Grayana with its mass yellow blossoms is also a credit of this family.
Nohuanu: A geranium and one of Hawaii’s sweetest flowers, growing among moss and grass on the most exposed locations near the summit of west Maui, where not one individual in 10,000 will ever see it. What a shame that it must “waste its sweetness on the desert air.” A closely allied variety is to be found on Haleakala, but the leaves are less beautiful, and flower smaller.
Hahaaiakamanu: (So named because of the fondness of birds for the large yellow fruits). One of the most beautiful of the Clermontias, a family distributed over all the islands. The long whit curved flowers are most attractive. Another species of this family is found on Haleakala alone.
Left for the last are three of the indigenous flowers so rarely seen that the Hawaiian names are now lost forever and only the “everyday” and scientific names are known.
Violets: The beautiful lavender and white Viola Manuensis that grows in profusion during the months of April and May at about 5,000 foot of elevation on West Maui. Nowhere else in the world does this particular plant grow wild, though closely allied varieties are found on the outer islands. One other variety is said to grow in the bog land at the top of Kukui.
Orchids: Two true orchids are found in the high elevations on west Maui. The mane orchid may prove these plants disappointing to some, but the beauty of the bloom lies in the delicate formation, not in the brilliant hues.
Daisies: Of this plant there are two varieties growing on Maui, one which grows nowhere in the world but in the bogs near the top of Kukui and the other a low humble looking plant growing in sheltered cracks and crevices near the top of Haleakala. The same plant is to be found on the mountains of Hawaii.
A trained botanist could, no doubt, after some study and more climbing enumerated many more indigenous flowering plants; but this brief article is neither made by a trained botanist nor for use by a trained botanist. It is merely a nature lover’s account of a small part of the beautiful world standing at our door, waiting to be appreciated if we will only give it the time it so richly deserves.