All About Native Hawaiian Plants

In honor of Native Hawaiian Plant Month, I interviewed my high school classmate, Phill Kapu, who dedicates much of his life and his work to helping restore native plants and eliminate the invasive species that are negatively impacting our environment and ecosystems. He has a huge wealth of knowledge and puts all his knowledge into practice, which we know is one of the best ways to continue to learn and to do good with that learning - ma ka hana ka 'ike. If you are interested in learning more about native plants and what we can do to help restore them to our ecosystems, this is a great read!

1. Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do?

Aloha Kailee! I am a field associate for the Oahu Invasive Species Committee.  We go into some of the most remote areas on the island to survey for incipient, invasive species that are detrimental to our watersheds.  This work is crucial to the health of our ecosystem because the health of our communities begins with the health of our forests and water.

2. What drew you to learn about and do restoration work for native plants?

The friends that were around me when becoming an adult shaped what I do now.  They were in the mountains, so I was in the mountains.  They were learning about/living in hawaii life ways and shared lots of mo'olelo with me and I began to make connections with them.  I was working a job I wasn't happy at and had to get out.  So one night while drinking 'awa my friend Kepano said "Oahu invasive species committee" was hiring soon.  They spent every day in the mountains and I thouight "I NEED that job".  I applied and DIDN'T GET THE JOB!  Luckily a wonderful friend I had just made (now my girlfriend Aimee Sato) was already enveloped in the conservation world and flew to Oahu and MADE me go to some volunteer days with different conservation organizations and made me apply again the next hiring session and I GOT THE JOB.  This is where I learned a great deal about native plantst.  The scientific and Hawaiian names, their habitats, and their uses and functions in the forest around them,  What drew me in was not only the facts about these plants, but the mo'olelo, mele, oli, and gods associated with them.

3. What is the difference between native and canoe plants?

The difference between native and canoe plants is a SHOCKING ONE at first.  But then it all makes sense.  What we refer to as canoe plants are the plants that the early Polynesians brought with them on their voyage to Hawai'i.  These plants include stuff like Mai'a (banana), 'ohi'a 'ai (mountain apple), hau, Kukui, 'ipu, Kamani, and KALO just to name a very few.  Early Polynesian voyagers sailed with the most essential lāʻau to live so that when they settled at their next destination they could not only survive, but prosper.  Native plants have been in Hawai'i for millions of years and have evolved here to become the best suited to live in this environment together.  These plants include things people know like 'Ohi'a Lehua, Koa, 'Ilima, Loulu, Ma'o Hau Hele, Hapu'u and ama'u ferns, and maile just to name a few.   

4. What are some things that people may not know about certain native plants? Or some common misconceptions?

This is a tough question 😅 because a lot of people don't know Anything about native plants!  But if I choose one particular misconception that could encompass a lot of the situations that arise from native plant knowledge or the lack thereof, it would be one we had a long conversation about,  the Ho'i'o.  A lot of the ho'i'o we mostly see and eat today is NOT the native ho'i'o (Diplazium sandwichianum) old Hawaiians used to eat.  The one in most salads you buy is actually Warabi (Diplazium esculentum).  At some point the common name became interchangeable and then sort of forgotten.  It brings up a lot of good talking points though when it comes to native and non native plants.  If we do not share and learn ʻike, our traditions and history could become lost in the clutter of all the information of the world.  At the same time, a silver lining is the native hoʻiʻo has had many years to regenerate.  By eating this introduced, faster growing one we have given the other space to take its place high in the mountain where it lives.  We donʻt have to change anything about whats happening with warabi, the name of the dish is hoʻiʻo salad and is prepared in all the same ways.  We just should not lose the knowledge of our own plants in the process.     

5. What tips do you have for others on helping to restore native plants in Hawai’i? Maybe some things we should do and some things we shouldn’t do?

Do the work!  Restoring native plants can be volunteering at a restoration project that you like or just planting native plants in your yard!.  Also learn about where you live!  If you live in a very wet and rainy place, plant a native that is from the wet forest.  If you live near the beach plant a coastal native plant that grows in those more dry salt air climates.  Remember these plants grew here for millions of years and are suited for these specific environments.  You can purchase native plants from Hui Ku Maoli Ola who also sells their plants at all City Mills. Or some restoration projects do community giveaways of natives sometimes.  Youʻre going to have to be makaʻala and find those through social media though.  Things you shouldʻnt do is plant anything that isnʻt native 😁 haha just kidding.  It's a lot but look at all the plants that are detrimental to our islands and how prolific they are at spreading and DONT PLANT THOSE. Clean your boots after hiking so you donʻt spread things from one area to another. 


6. Where can people go to learn more about native Hawaiian plants? Books, podcasts, places to volunteer, anything!

There are many books to learn all the names and descriptions of natives like "Manual of the Flowering Plants Hawaiʻi", a google search will bring up a lot, but personally there is no better way to me to learn about a plant than to go and plant one.  When you're walking out of or near a city mill one day grab a 5 to 10 dollar plant, take it home, read the name, look it up on the internet or a book you have.  Look for it in moʻolelo or hawaiian mele and make pilina with it.  In the process look at what moon to plant it on in the Hawaiian moon calendar.  The plants will bring you closer to Hawaiian culture and in there you'll find the wealth of information from our ancestors.  If you dont have a yard to plant a plant in, go on a hike into the mountains or spend a day volunteering doing outplanting.  See what you can or CANʻT find in the mountains and it will give a more in depth perspective at how important and crucial our native plant species are.  EVEN go and learn where the non native plants are from because we are all mixed plate and can relate to those too sometimes. Im not much of a podcast person, but a good place to start learning about non natives, hiking etiquette, and volunteer opportunities is  There is a "Hike Pono" button in the "Learn More" tab and information about invasives on oahu.  A great volunteer opportunity that teaches a lot about the plants they plant and involves hawaiian culture in their practice is @protectandpreserve on instagram.  Also @808cleanups has projects all over and volunteer opportunities for folks to engage in with restoration, clearing of invasives, and even fishpond/limu stuff.  You can even volunteer with Oahu invasive species Committee killing invasives!  These are some good things to get started looking at.      


7. Any other mana'o you'd like to share?

Knowledge is key.  If you donʻt know there is a problem, then you canʻt help fix it.  Non natives promote erosion and flooding, reduce biodiversity in our forests (kill the mosses,ferns,bugs, birds that live in those trees), and reduce the amount of water captured in the mountains.  If our natives are out competed by invasive species, the plants that hold our water and make this place livable will all die.  The dirt they hold will wash out into the ocean and kill the reefs of our beautiful ocean.  Love and cherish our native plants because they do more for us than weʻll ever be able to know.  Meet a native plant, learn the moʻolelo, mele, ʻoli, and ʻike it is going to introduce to you and cherish the pilina you make with all of those things. Thats all. Mahalo!        

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Talk Story with YIREH


Talk Story with YIREH