Home > Plants > Polynesian Plants in Hawaii

Updated 10/2/2013

Plants brought to Hawaii by Early Polynesian Settlers

Polynesian seafarers from the Society & Marquesas Islands brought useful plants (along with some unwelcome animals) to Hawaii.  Many species are either naturalized or still extant at undisturbed sites where originally cultivated.  Of questionable origin are the Coconut Palm, Hau, & Milo, species that may have rafted here on their own.

These plants were critical to the survival of Hawaiians since most native species are largely inedible.  Nevertheless, native plants were highly utilized for medicine, construction, and handiworks. 

 

Family Araceae

Colocasia esculenta

UH Manoa, Oahu

TARO    KALO    SATOIMO

Native to Malaysia & cultivated in watered paddies throughout the tropics.  Remains an important staple in Pacific Islands.  Stinging calcium oxalate crystals must be removed by cooking or soaking in cold water before consumption.  Starchy root or corm is mashed with water to create poi.  Leaves are cooked like spinach.  Also grown as an ornamental.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taro

 

Alocasia macrorrhiza

UH Manoa, Oahu

'APE

Brought to Hawaii by early settlers and naturalized along lowland streams & wet areas.  Leaf apices tend to point skyward, moderately glossy.  Baked corms eaten during famines.  Occurs from India east through Polynesia.

 

Family Asparagaceae

Cordyline fruticosa

UH Manoa, Oahu

TI PLANT, CABBAGE PALM    KI

Introduced to Hawaii by early Polynesians, occurring in mesic forests & valleys.  Numerous ornamental cultivars in gardens.  Culturally important throughout the Pacific.  Large green-leaf variety is the standard form.  Originally from SE Asia.

http://www2.bishopmuseum.org/ethnobotanydb/resultsdetailed.asp?search=ki

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordyline_fruticosa

 

Family Piperaceae

Piper methysticum

UH Manoa

'AWA    KAVA

Spreading shrub with thick jointed branches.  Brought to Hawaii by early setlers & cultivated in damp shaded lowlands.  Roots are pounded & mixed with water to create a narcotic ceremonial drink.

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kava

 

Family Euphorbiaceae

Aleurites moluccana

 

Ho'omaluhia BG, Kane'ohe, Oahu

 

CANDLENUT TREE    KUKUI

Large tree with light green leaves found in mesic valleys.  Brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian settlers.  Roasted nutmeat eaten sparingly, used for torches, oil for lamps, medication, outer shell for jewelry.  Fruit husk & roots used for dye, wood for building, latex sap for glue.  Hawaii's official state tree.  Native to Indo-Malaysia and widespread throughout the Pacific.

 

Family Arecaceae

Cocos nucifera

Ke'ehi Park, Oahu 

 

 

COCONUT PALM    NIU

Native to Indo-Malay region but now cultivated in the tropics worldwide.  Plant has a multitude of uses, including dried coconut meat, or copra.  Copra is still an important export from many Pacific islands.  Fresh coconut meat is eaten raw or grated to yield coconut milk.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut

 

Family Clusiaceae

Calophyllum inophyllum

Ke'ehi Park, Oahu

KAMANI    ALEXANDRIAN LAUREL

Large coastal tree with rough flaky bark and dry spherical fruit.  Brought to Hawaii by early Polynesians for wood & medicinal use.  Native from East Africa to the Tuamotus.

 

Family Convolvulaceae

Ipomoea batatas

UH Manoa Campus

SWEET POTATO VINE        'UALA

Native vine from South America widely cultivated in warm regions worldwide.  Sweet tuberous roots are an important food & feed crop.  Leaves & shoots are also eaten.  First introduced to Hawaii by Polynesian settlers and grown in hillside terraces.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_potato

 

Family Dioscoreaceae

Dioscorea bulbifera

Hoomaluhia, Kaneohe, Oahu

BITTER YAM    HOI

Formerly cultivated strictly as famine food in mesic areas.  Tubers are poisonous unless soaked in running water.  Native to Tropical Africa & Asia.

 

Dioscorea pentaphylla

Hoomaluhia, Kaneohe, Oahu

FIVE-LEAF YAM    PI'A

Formerly cultivated in windward mesic valleys.  Slightly poisonous tubers are edible if soaked properly before cooking.  Native to Tropical Asia & cultivated throughout Polynesia.

 

Family Cucurbitaceae

Lagenaria siceraria

UH Manoa, Oahu

BOTTLE or CALABASH GOURD, LONG SQUASH   IPU    HYOTAN

Vine cultivated for large fruit harvested young as vegetable or allowed to ripen into hard-shelled gourd made into calabashes & musical implements.  One of the earliest plants known to be in cultivation throughout the world.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calabash

 

Family Zingiberaceae

Curcuma longa

UH Manoa, Oahu

TURMERIC    'OLENA

Cultivated throughout the Pacific in wet lowlands.  Orange-fleshed rhizomes are boiled, dried, & ground to yield turmeric powder.  Used as spice, food color, dye, medicine.  Native to India & SE Asia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turmeric

 

Zingiber zerumbet



Kapi'olani Garden, Oahu

SHAMPOO GINGER    AWAPUHI

Cultivated throughout the Pacific, native to South Asia.  Soapy juice from the flower head used as moisturizing shampoo, other parts for utilitarian purposes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zingiber_zerumbet

 

Family Boraginaceae

 Cordia subcordata

UH Manoa, Oahu

KOU

Medium tree with corrugated bark.  Wood well-utilized for food containers.  Native to Indo-Malaysian region & cultivated widely throughout the Pacific.

 

Family Malvaceae

Thespesia populnea

Ke'ehi Park, Oahu

 

PORTIA    MILO

Common tree in sheltered coastal habitats.  Wood & fiber was used by Hawaiians, lending some to believe it was brought here by early settlers.  Native to Tropical Africa, Asia, Australia, & Polynesia, and naturalized worldwide.

 

Talipariti tiliaceus

Makai Pier, Waimanalo, Oahu

Hoomaluhia, Kaneohe, Oahu

HAU

Common tree in wet coastal & inland habitats.  Sprawling branches form impenetrable thickets.  Several leaf & flower varieties.  Lightweight wood & strong fiber was used by Hawaiians, lending some to believe it was brought here by early settlers.  Occurs in the tropics & subtropics worldwide.  Formerly known as Hibiscus tiliaceus.

 

Family Myrtaceae

Syzygium malaccense

Ho'omaluhia BG, Kane'ohe, Oahu

MOUNTAIN APPLE    'OHI'A 'AI

Large tree naturalized in mesic lowlands & valleys.  Reddish-white fruits are crisp juicy, and sweet, produced in great numbers during spring by fuchsia flowers borne on trunk and branches.  Native to SE Asia and widely cultivated in Polynesia, brought to Hawaii by early settlers.

 

Family Musaceae

Musa acuminata

Kona, Hawaii

APPLE BANANA    MAI'A    BANANITO

Bananas have been in cultivation for several thousand years.  Native to northern Australia and cultivated in Hawaii.  Small fruits are yellow and lack seeds.  Polynesian colonists brought at least two species represented by numerous cultivars that grow wild in wet forests.  Musa x paradisiaca has waxy green leaves and fruiting stalk is pendant, while Musa troglodytarum has bright green leaves and fruiting stalk that grows upright.  Fruits are reddish-orange with large seeds.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana

 

Family Pandanaceae

Pandanus tectorius

Ho'omaluhia BG, Kane'ohe, Oahu

PANDANUS    HALA    PU HALA

Clump-forming tree of coastal & lowland wet forests.  Prop roots give this plant a distinctive appearance.  Male flowers are borne in white bracts.  A variety with yellow striped leaves lacking spines is popular in large gardens.  Most parts were used by islanders.  Leaves have a variety of uses including mats, hats, baskets, and home building.  Native from Indonesia east throughout Melanesia, Micronesia, & Polynesia including Hawaii.  Brought to Hawaii by early Polynesians in addition to natural dispersal by floating seeds.

 

Family Moraceae

Artocarpus altilis

UH Manoa, Oahu

 

BREADFRUIT    ULU

Large tree with large dissected leaves & milky sap.  Starchy fruit an important staple in many Pacific cultures.  Native to the Malay peninsula & widely cultivated throughout the Pacific.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breadfruit

 

Broussonetia papyrifera

UH Manoa, Oahu

PAPER MULBERRY    WAUKE

Spindly tree with sandpapery leaves found in mesic valleys along streams.  Brought to Hawaii by Polynesian settlers to produce bark to make high-quality Kapa cloth.  Propagated from cuttings since it does not produce fruit in Hawaii.  Native to China and widely cultivated throughout the Pacific.

 

Family Rubiaceae

Morinda citrifolia

UH Manoa, Oahu

INDIAN MULBERRY    NONI

Small tree found in coastal areas, lava fields, dry, and mesic forests.   Brought to Hawaii by early Polynesian settlers and now naturalized.  Foul-smelling bitter fruit is used medicinally, roots & bark for dye.  Noni juice is touted as a homeopathic remedy.  One fruit contains roughly half the Vitamin C of an Orange (I'd choose the orange).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noni

 

Family Oxalidaceae

Oxalis corniculata

Waimanalo, Oahu

YELLOW WOOD SORREL    'IHI 'AI

Common prostrate herb in disturbed habitats at any elevation.  Worldwide distribution.