While living on Hawaii’s Big Island (Hawai’i Island) in 2013 and 2014, I was able to see a much more obvious abundance of native Hawaiian foliage than on Oahu and as a result, became very interested in it. I started reading up on the different types of native plants and trees that I might encounter in different areas on the island, and began adventuring to try and discover as much as I could.
I must first state that I greatly respect Hawaiian land, fauna and flora; I try to be careful to “watch my step” as I explore nature, so that I do not mistakenly trample any plants on my way. I believe that nature is most beautiful in it’s natural environment, so do not support the act of “picking” or taking home souvenirs of this content, except in photos! :) My hopes are to enhance other people’s appreciation and knowledge of these living things without encouraging exploration destruction of native scenery and/or life. If I do encourage you to seek out native plants and wildlife, please do so respectfully – as not to disrupt the natural environment while exploring the beauty! :) Okay, now on with my experience….
One winter stormy morning in Waimea (Kamuela), my boyfriend and I checked the Mauna Kea webcams and found that it was snowing on the summit. Having waiting several months for this, we immediately jumped in the car and headed up Kohala Mountain to try and get a good viewpoint of the sunrise over snowy Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. We were greeted with many clouds, and a hard-to-decipher summit (against the bright white sky). As you can see in the picture below, the snowy mountain tops are hard to distinguish from the sky and clouds.
Without a great picture opportunity here, we jumped back in the car and instead decided to take a trip up towards the mountains in hopes of getting some cheesy “snow in Hawaii” shots. However, while taking the new branch of Saddle Road – dubbed “Daniel K. Inouye” highway up the mountain, it was clear (or, not so clear…haha) that the storm was continuing to brew over the mountains, bringing in more cloud cover.
We continued to trekk on, just to be sure we wouldn’t miss anything. The road to the summit of Mauna Kea was closed, so instead of wasting a trip, we went in the opposite direction towards Mauna Loa. While Mauna Loa may seem somewhat unpicturesque, lacking majestic mountain peaks and steep grade, it’s important to note that it’s Hawaii’s most massive mountain and second-tallest, reaching 13,678 feet in elevation above sea level.
Mauna Loa is an active volcano, thus is mostly surrounded by vast lava rock fields of different flows from various years. Unlike Mauna Kea (Hawaii’s tallest mountain), there is no drivable road to the summit of Mauna Loa; there are two roads that will take you partially up on different sides of the mountain, and hiking trails beyond to the actual summit. On this particular trip, we took Mauna Loa Observatory Road, in hopes of getting a wide-angle view looking back at snowy Mauna Kea.
Since Mauna Kea continued to stay in storm-mode, we started taking notice of our more immediate surroundings. Take a look at the above picture, and you’ll see that the environment seems pretty desolate, and includes old a’a lava (a type of lava having a rough jagged surface) rock from various former flows – some stemming back to even the mid-1800’s. But take a closer look and you’ll notice plants sprouted here and there amid the desolation.
Even more interesting, is that this lava rock terrain provides the perfect environment for native Hawaiian flora, which is apparent with various native plants speckled across this landscape. It’s important to distinguish between an indigenous native plant and an endemic native plant. Indigenous to Hawaii defines an organism that is native to Hawaii but can be found elsewhere. Endemic to Hawaii defines an organism that is native to Hawaii and can ONLY be naturally found in Hawaii. Many people associate Hawaiian flora with tropical plants like Red Ginger, Bird of Paradise, the Plumeria tree, the Banana tree, etc…but these are not native at all – while they thrive in Hawaii, they are alien species to the Hawaiian Islands. Hence, it was a treat to see such an abundance of truly native Hawaiian plant life along Mauna Loa Observatory Road, though it may not be your stereotypical tropical paradise. Take a look at the next few pictures of native Hawaiian berries I found amid the a’a lava rock fields…
The Hawaiian endemic `Ohelo Berry (Vaccinium reticulatum) thrives in harsh rocky environments; it is edible and is a big part of the Hawaiian Nene Goose‘s diet. There are other berries that resemble the `Ohelo Berry but are poisonous, so don’t try it if you’re not 100% sure what it is! :)
The Hawaiian indigenous Pukiawe (Styphelia tameiameiae) berry plant is bright pink in color, but is often bleached white by the sunlight. From my experience in Hawaii, it is one of the most common native plants – I even see it in high elevation areas of Oahu.
The Hawaiian endemic `Aiakanene or Kukaenene (Coprosma ernodeoides) berry plant is positively stunning among the barren lava rock fields. It is as if black pearls float atop leafy crowns; but with this berry, nothing must die in order to produce the same beauty that a black pearl possesses. On a more humorous note, the English translation of the Hawaiian word “Kukaenene” means Nene dung – since this berry is also a common part of the Nene Goose diet, and well, resembles the dark round pellets of Nene poop…yeah.
The Hawaiian indigenous Aalii or Hopseed Bush (Dodonaea viscosa) is very common throughout dry areas of the Big Island of Hawaii. It can be spotted in high country areas above Waikoloa, Waimea, and along Saddle Road. It is easily identified by the white to pinkish-red triangular shaped capsules that encase the seeds.
There are of course a large amount of other native Hawaiian plants, but these were the four that really seemed to flourish along Mauna Loa Observatory Road – ironically all touting mainly berries and/or seeds.
To see more photos from my adventures involving Native Hawaiian flora, visit Photography By Charmian’s Hawaiian Native Plant Gallery. This gallery is still a work in progress! :)
To learn more details about Native Hawaiian foliage, visit nativeplants.hawaii.edu
Mahalo for taking the time to read this and view my photos!!! :D