Pineapples May Be Iconic. But for Some Local Businesses, Niu and Naupaka Are the Real Hawai‘i.

Native, endemic and canoe plants are popping up in nurseries, on fabrics and in herbal healing, replacing many introduced species.
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Matt Schirman, left, and Rick Barboza at the Hui Kū Maoli Ola plant nursery in Kāne‘ohe, which specializes in native plants. | Photo: David Croxford

Kona coffee, pineapples and macadamia nuts have become such iconic Hawaiian commodities, it’s easy to forget none are native species. They, along with plumeria, liliko‘i and other plants, were introduced to the Islands in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

They are different from plants brought to Hawai‘i by the first Polynesian settlers, known as canoe plants, including kalo (taro), ‘awa (kava) and niu (coconut). And those are different from native Hawaiian species and species endemic to the Islands – endemic meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.  

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Photo: courtesy of Emily States

Today, some local business owners are shifting the spotlight toward endemic and native plants – lāʻau kamaʻāina – and canoe plants. One of them is Emily States, who started her business Kaulumaika after she and her husband went shopping in search of Hawaiian themed baby clothes for their first born.  

“They all had a plethora of commercialized Hawaiian things like pineapples, monstera and English idioms,” States recalls. “But we couldn’t find clothes just with ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i or native Hawaiian plants and animals.” This prompted States to design her original “Kuu Opihi” print for a onesie she handmade for their baby.  

When people began asking them where they could buy their own, Emily and her husband ran with the idea and opened their online store. Kaulumaika now sells fabric, bedding, stationary and more. “We do hours of research before designing and releasing products because we are passionate about appropriate representation of what a ‘Hawaiian design’ is.” 

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Photo: courtesy of Emily States

Another local business owner is Kea Peters, a Native Hawaiian artist from ‘Ewa Beach. She runs Kākou Collective, an online store that sells apparel, stationery and other items featuring Peters’ Hawaiian-inspired designs. 


Naupaka, a Unique Species

She gives one example: “Hawai‘i is known for its beaches, but not so much the native plants that live on them. I thought it was really cool to find so many native and endemic species on the beach, like naupaka … a very unique species of plants.” 

Planting native species can help to counter their rapid rates of extinction, says horticulturist Rick Barboza, who alongside longtime friend and business partner Matt Schirman, runs two nurseries on O‘ahu called Hui Kū Maoli Ola that specialize in native Hawaiian plants. They also work on habitat restoration and rehabilitation projects. 

Hui Ku Maoli Ola Nursery

“We were the endemic capital (of the world), which you would think we would be proud of. But instead, we dropped the ball and now Hawai‘i’s got the title of extinction capital of the world,” he says. 

A fungal disease known as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death is particularly alarming. “Over 100,000 acres of ʻōhiʻa lehua trees, which are endemic, have already died because of ROD,” Barboza says. 

Ohia Lehua 2“They’re arguably the most important Hawaiian plant. ʻŌhiʻa lehua are one of the first plants to come up after a lava flow, so they begin the whole process of turning volcanoes into soil and help the rock breakdown process so other native species can thrive,” he says. Almost all native forest birds and snails – many of which are on the brink of extinction – also rely on the plant as they eat its nectar, flowers, and leaves. 

Mālama ʻāina – taking care of the land and sea – is a fundamental aspect of Hawaiian culture. Under this guiding principle, it is our kuleana to protect native flora and fauna that still exist.  

“There’s a lack of knowledge about this, so there are fewer conversations about it,” says Peters. “I want to hold the space for it. And that’s kind of what the difference is, that we have to just create and cultivate space to have those important conversations, so it’s not completely gone or lost.” 


Endemic Capital of the World

The Hawaiian archipelago is one of the most isolated land masses in the world, so it’s no wonder our islands became the endemic capital of the world. Native plants came to Hawai‘i naturally, in one of three ways, easily remembered as the three W’s: wings, wind and waves. A staggering 90% of the native species in Hawai‘i are endemic. That’s over 10,000 endemic species. 

Yellow Ilima 2Species become endemic by evolving in isolated ecosystems over millennia, which results in the development of unique traits. The Hawaiian white hibiscus, for example, is the only hibiscus variety in the world known to have acquired a fragrance naturally. 

Peters finds inspiration in Hawaiian culture, flora and fauna, but says on her website that she avoids stereotypical imagery. 

“Many times when people think of Hawai‘i (especially those not from here), the first thing that comes to mind is the beach, perhaps waterfalls, rainbows, and probably hula. Nothing against these subjects at all because they are part of Hawai‘i, but they are not the first ideas I go with because their story is already well told.” 

Hence her focus on native and endemic species like naupaka, which has several practical uses. It is one of many native plants used in la‘au lapa‘au – the tradition of Hawaiian herbal healing. The sap from its leaves and fruit contains the chemical compounds saponin and coumarin, which can be used to treat minor wounds, skin allergies, and eye irritation and inflammation. 

“The naupaka has a white berry that can be used if you get stung by a Portuguese man-of-war,” explains Peters. “Put that on there immediately.”  

Barboza says there’s a lot of misinformation about la‘au lapa‘au and that some people are simply doing it wrong. “People that practice la‘au lapa‘au today, I would say 80% or more of the plants they utilize for la‘au lapa‘au are introduced and some of them are actually super invasive.”  

He advises la‘au lapa‘au practitioners to do their research and only use native Hawaiian and canoe plants. He believes that if you are following a different culture’s traditional medicine, make sure you are calling it by the correct name and are not using invasive plants.  

“Countless species of plants sold routinely in Hawai’i bear Hawaiian (or Hawaiian sounding) names but are anything but Hawaiian. In fact, many are invasive and actually do significant harm to our fragile native ecosystems upon introduction into the wild.” 



Categories: Natural Environment, Trends