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Landscaping with Hawaii’s native plants

June 22, 2014 - 12:05am

Throughout the United States, there is a strong movement to landscape with native plants. Some regions are extremely rich in easy-to-grow native plants.

I recently participated in the International Palm Conference in Miami. It was exciting to see the results of hundreds of millions of dollars spent to landscape parks, roads, airport and coastal beaches with native trees, such as mahogany, sea grape, oak, magnolia and many species of indigenous palms. They are using mangrove trees in fresh and salt water gardens.With the emphasis on natives, we did notice the lack of flowering plants such as the Cassia showers and their hybrids, hibiscus, plumeria, strelitzia, heliconia and many other flowering plants that brighten our Hawaii landscapes.

In Hawaii, we are also using many more natives than in years gone by, but we have incorporated many flowering plants to add the color that has become part of the local culture. Can you imagine Hawaii without orchids, bromeliads, anthuriums, plumeria and all the rainbow colors of the flowering trees brought here from around the world?

We are somewhat limited in the palette of tough, easy-to-grow natives.

Some of the most difficult areas to reforest are the dry forest zones of our islands including those of West Hawaii, Ka‘u, Kohala and Puna. These lands have been grazed for decades and have become rocky grasslands. Great efforts have been made in places like the new West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery. I had driven by the area many times but did not until recently notice the work of hundreds of volunteers planting natives on Puu Oo over the last several years.

Most folks are now on the bandwagon of protecting our native plants. However, protecting these valuable resources is easier said than done. One way is to get involved with projects like the veterans cemetery. According to Dr. Stevens, longtime advocate for native plants, veterans, students, community groups and interested individuals are continuing the efforts near the cemetery by planting a forest. So far participation from the University of Hawaii Center-West Hawaii, UH-Hilo, West Hawaii Explorations Academy and other schools plus kokua from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, Kukio, New Moon Foundation, Hawaii County, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, Pohakuloa Training Area, Ironman and many others is greening this once barren hill for all to enjoy. The coordinating organization is the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery Development and Expansion Association.

Volunteers will be learning what native plants will thrive in this micro environment. The reason location is so important is many native plants have specific requirements. If you think coconut palms, kukui, bananas, taro and ti are natives and seem to grow easily, then it is time to rethink.! These plants are alien species brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians as they migrated across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

Our state tree, the kukui, originated in what is now Indonesia, it is believed. Our state tree probably should be the loulu palm because it is definitely not only indigenous but endemic. The loulu palms evolved here and are found growing naturally only in Hawaii. At one time, there may have been many dozens of species, but with the introduction of the Polynesian rats, and pigs, many must have disappeared. Later, the introduction of grazing animals did further damage so that now there are only remnants of what were vast populations of the loulu.

It is a shame that many of these species have declined in number to the point that they are almost extinct. Luckily, folks are beginning to plant these palms in the landscape. Some palms are being replanted in national parks and state forest reserves.

Kona loulu is one of the species being planted in abundance at the veterans cemetery. The Kona loulu is becoming more popular in the landscape. Pritchardia affinis or P. maideniana prefer sunny, dryer locations but has been grown at elevations as high as 3,000 feet. Another rare loulu is named after George Schattauer, Kona kamaaina. A few trees are found above Kaohe, Honomalino and Hookena. This specie and Pritchardia beccariana from Kulani Prison Road near Volcano are being distributed on the Big Island.

It’s important to the survival of native species to use them in our gardens. Unfortunately, most nurseries do not carry the native loulu, and seed of some species are difficult to obtain. Laws set up to protect these palms make it complicated and confusing to those who want to propagate and distribute endangered species such as the loulu.

However, you may propagate loulu if you can located seeds. Plant fresh seeds in flats or shallow boxes filled with soil. Cover the seeds with 1 inch of soil.

Keep the soil in the flats moist but not wet. Damping off fungi are likely to ravage the tiny seedlings if the soil is kept soggy.

Seed flats may be covered with clear plastic to keep in warmth and moisture. This will speed up germination. Be sure to keep seed and seedlings protected from rats. Germination time of palm seed varies widely with the species and requires patience. They may not peek out of the ground for several months following planting.

Pot the plants into 1-gallon containers after they have sprouted. A suggested potting mixture is equal parts of soil or cinder and rotted compost. Fertilize monthly with a complete fertilizer. When the seedlings are 1 to 2 feet tall, transplant them into 5-gallon containers or plant them in the ground. Loulu palms are well-suited for planting in groups, as specimens, or for lining driveways. Young palms require coddling until established, then they thrive with very little attention, other than sun, fertilizer and water.

Remember, if folks begin to show interest in native trees such as the loulu, our nurseries can then afford to carry them as part of their regular stock. To do your part in saving our native species, use them as much as possible in your garden.