Hawaiian plants are some of the most beautiful and unusual curiosities in the world. Like many islands, Hawaii is full of plants that are isolated and don’t exist anywhere else. There’s also a rich cultural history surrounding the use of these plants (known as ethnobotany).
Whether you’re excited about an upcoming trip or daydreaming about a one-day-maybe kind of vacation, you’ll love learning about these fascinating Hawaiian plants!
1. Haleakalā Silversword Plant (Argyroxiphium sandwicense)
Where it grows: This plant is only found on the island of Maui along the slopes of the Haleakalā volcano in Haleakalā National Park. It grows above the elevation of roughly 2,100 meters above sea level (6890 feet). It is also found in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve on the Big Island.
What it looks like: This plant looks a bit like a porcupine – it’s got many long, silver, spiky leaves that are covered in fine grey hairs. At maturity, the plant produces a single, tall stalk of flowers. The flower stalk may be 2 meters tall and have over 600 flower heads. After flowering, the plant dies.
Why it’s fascinating: This vulnerable Hawaiian plant may live over 50 years before flowering. Its populations have been declining thanks to human foot traffic, which kills the shallow roots of the plant, and goats that eat the plant.
2. Ilima Flower (Sida fallax)
Where it grows: This Hawaiian shrub is native to the dry and mesic (not wet tropical) forests of all the Hawaiian islands. It’s also found in a few other tropical locations.
What it looks like: This little plant is quite adaptable and may come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on where it grows. It may grow between 1 foot and 6 feet tall, depending on conditions! The main feature is its beautiful yellow flowers.
Why it’s fascinating: This plant is edible and was used by native Hawaiians as a mild laxative for babies. It’s also one of the flowers that were traditionally used for leis. It’s much smaller than the hibiscus flower (which is generally used today), so leis made from ilima take a lot longer to make!
3. Iliau (Wilkesia gymnoxiphium)
Where it grows: This plant only grows on the island of Kaua’i in the dry and mesic forests of Waimea Canyon.
What it looks like: This Hawaiian plant looks just like one of Dr. Seuss’s trufula trees! They grow as single-stalked plants that are 1 to 2 meters tall with a bushy shrub on top. When they’re flowering, they produce an inflorescence above their leaves – then they die. They’re closely related to the silverswords (#1 on this list).
Why it’s fascinating: We love finding real-life trufula trees, and these are some of the coolest out there! The fact that they’re so rare only makes seeing these plants more special.
4. Naupaka (Scaevola spp.)
Where it grows: One species of this plant is Hawaii’s most common beach plant. It grows along the coast on all of the Hawaiian islands. Another species grows along Hawaii’s mountain ranges. Both species have fleshy, smooth, long leaves.
What it looks like: This unusual flower looks like it was cut in half. The flowers are small and white or purple. The mountainous species and the coastal species have flowers that fit together to make a whole – they’re missing opposite sides of the flower.
Why it’s fascinating: Legend has it that these flowers represent a pair of young lovers. When the lovers were unable to marry, one fled to the sea and one fled to the mountains. In another version of the legend, the goddess Pele actually chased the lovers apart and tried to kill them with lava – but Pele’s sisters saved the young lovers by changing them to flowers.
There are hundreds more fascinating Hawaiian plants out there. Which are your favorites?