Modern Hawai‘i is a beautiful place to observe tropical flora, with thousands of species that produce a wide range of flowers, fruits, smells, and woods. While there are many beautiful, tasty, and fragrant species around, vast majority of these plants are non-native, meaning that they have been introduced to the area by humans. The most popular species associated with Hawai‘i, such as Plumeria, Orchids, and Bird of Paradise, have been all been introduced by westerners and even classics like the coconut and sugar cane are not native, but were introduced by the early Polynesians.
Hawai‘i is one of the most geographically isolated places on the planet, being over 2,000 miles from a continental landmass and nearly 1,000 miles from even the tiniest of islands. It was therefore very difficult for the original plant and animals inhabitants to colonize the islands and few actually made it. Before Hawaiians arrived in the islands the only animals present were birds, insects, a couple small reptiles, and one mammal – the hoary bat. The birds brought with them most of the flowering plants and the rest were carried over by the wind along with the spores of ferns and fungi. Scientists estimate that a new species arrived in Hawai‘i once every 20,000 to 50,000 years.
Successful plant immigrants found the islands a fertile land to occupy, with a moderate climate and an abundant rainfall. There were no grazing animals and few insects or pests in addition to minimal competition for sunlight and nutrients. These colonizing species rapidly spread out over their new home.
As these plants spread out across the islands they began to change, slowly forming new species. Several influences facilitated these changes. First of all their new habitat was very different from their old ones. The absence of grazing animals, for instance, caused many plant species to become more docile by losing their thorns and toxins. The absence of bees to pollinate some plants caused the plants to change in order to attract other animals such as birds or fruit flies. There was also the ecological variability of Hawai‘i, which contains virtually every ecological zone on the planet. Therefore a plant could land and inhabit a dry plains area, and as it spread out it found itself within a rainforest and had to adapt accordingly. There was also the genetic isolation of species. If only a few individuals accomplished the journey to Hawai‘i the genetic pool is very small and inbreeding is inevitable. In addition there was further isolation within the chain, such as the isolation between islands or even the isolation between the steep mountain ridges separating the valleys.
Due to these factors the original species the arrived in Hawai‘i became completely new and unique species. These species are known as endemic, meaning they are found here and no where else in the world. Hawai‘i has the highest rate of endemism in the world, over 90%. While this means our species are original, it also means they are vulnerable because if they disappear from Hawai’i, they are extinct. Although Hawai‘i constitutes less than 1% of the United States land mass, it posts the most threatened, endangered, and extinct species.
Many of these plants species are conserved and displayed here at the garden. These species are propagated both for conservation projects that reintroduce them into the wild and also for private consumption. That’s right, you can buy endangered Hawaiian plants at our garden for your private landscaping desires.