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The Flowers of Hawai‘i

The plants and animals on the cards represent the species in the Hawaiian Islands before arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. From shortly after the arrival of Captain Cook, a flood of new foreign species of plants and animals have have been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands. Many of the iconic plants and animals we associate with Hawai‘i are modern introductions.

Half of the plants represented on the cards are Polynesian introduced, and half are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiians used all the resources available to them from the mountain to the ocean. They also brought and carefully cultivated plants that would be essential to survive on newly discovered Pacific islands. The plantson the cards were chosen from each ecological zone — costal, grassland, dry forest, and wet forest. The first settlers of Hawai‘i created a sustainable balance between their needs for food, shelter, and tools, with the local ecology. They were careful to maximize cultivation while preserving nature’s capacity for renewal.

Each island was divided into districts called ahupua‘a. An ahupua‘a usually divides the Islands in wedges of land from the upland mountains to the ocean. From the top, the mountain forests provide timber for building, cordage, medicine, and water. In the cultivated uplands, Hawaiians grew sugar cane, sweet potato, banana, breadfruit, and dry-land taro. Lower down, where the land flattened out, large flooded fields, lo‘i, of kalo (taro) could be grown. Finally, from the ocean: fish, seaweed, and salt can be harvested. Trading among residents of an ahupua‘a ensured a community could be self sufficient.



The niu was brought by the Polynesians as a plant essential to the successful colonization of new islands. The coconut fruit can be used for food, water, and oil. The shell can be used to make cups, spoons, and small hula drums. The fruit husk makes cordage. The wood is used for building houses, canoes, and large drums. The leaves can be used to make baskets, brooms, and walls for houses.

The flying bird is a red tail tropicbird, koa‘e ula. The long red tail feather was especially prized for kāhili. A kāhili is a standard for Hawaiian royalty.

The tropicbird can be found on Kaua‘i. The tropicbird is more common on the more remote western Hawaiian Islands. The bird is so adapted to life on the wing, or on the ocean, that it is unable to walk on land. The tropicbird only stays on land while it is nesting, and is particularly vulnerable to any land predators.

 ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua Ohia Tree

ohia lehua

The ‘Ōhi‘a tree is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. There are many variations of the ‘Ōhi‘a. They can be small shrubs, or trees growing to over 100 feet (30.5m). The ‘Ōhi‘a is sacred to the Hawai‘i volcano goddess Pele. The tree is called ‘Ōhi‘a and the red blossoms are called Lehua. The ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua is only the ‘Ōhi‘a tree with red blossoms.

The legend of the ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua is that the goddess Pele asked the handsome warrior named ‘Ōhi‘a to marry her. ‘Ōhi‘a refused, as he was in love with the woman named Lehua. The enraged Pele sent lava to burn the couple, but the spirits of the forest transformed ‘Ōhi‘a into a twisted tree, and Lehua into the blossoms on the ‘Ōhi‘a tree, so that they would never be separated. It is said that if you pick a Lehua blossom it will rain, like the tears of separated lovers.

The ‘Ōhi‘a wood is exceptionally dense and strong. It is used to make boards for pounding poi, kapa beaters, tools, weapons, canoe parts, building construction, medicine, and lei.

The ‘amakihi is one of the more common endemic Hawaiian birds. Unfortunately, like most Hawaiian endemic birds, they are threatened by mosquito borne diseases and live deep in the mountain forests. A warming climate allows more mosquitos to move higher on the mountains, and kill more birds.

 ‘Iliahi Hawaiian Sandalwood


The ‘iliahi, Hawaiian sandalwood tree, was a major part of the Hawaiian forest. Hawaiian sandalwood is part of the genus Santalum, which is highly valued in Asia for its aromatic wood oil. The name sandalwood comes from the Indian Sanskrit name candana which was called sandalum in Latin.

During the Hawaiian Kingdom (1795 - 1893), Hawaiians would harvest the wood and trade it with foreigners for iron nails, and later for money. The wood would be traded in Asia to be used for carving and incense. The trade in ‘iliahi was a major source of income for the Hawaiian Kingdom, until the forests became depleted.

Hawaiians also value ‘iliahi for it’s fragrant wood. The fragrance comes from oil in the wood. The wood is dense and strong. Traditional uses include tools, canoe parts, medicine, and perfume. The cross at the Bishop Memorial Church (the chapel on the Kamehameha School campus) is made of ‘iliahi wood.

Hawaiian kapa is a type of cloth made by pounding wauke (mulberry) bark into large sheets. The 20 point card has an example of a large decorated kapa sheet. Kapa can be made from a variety of different plant barks, but Hawaiians are known for their particularly fine quality white wauke kapa. Kapa was used for clothing, wrapping, flags, bedding, and in religious ceremonies. Hawaiian kapa is decorated with printed patterns, dyed, and/or embossed. The 20 point card is an example of a printed kapa. Carved bamboo stamps are used to make patterns on the kapa. The 10 point card is an example of drawing on the kapa.

Kapa with a nice smell is as important as the visual appeal. Along with various flowers, fragrant ‘iliahi heartwood was ground into powder to perfume kapa. Modern perfumers still value sandalwood oil because it fixes more volitile fragrances in the perfume mix to make them last longer.



The hala tree grows mostly in coastal, and lowland environments. This Polynesian introduced plant has a multitude of uses. The leaves are used to make mats, baskets, and sails for canoes. The wood was used in construction, roots for medicine, and the fruit for lei.

The pueo is an endemic owl. The Hawaiian owl is active most during the day, and feeds on rodents. Many Hawaiians saw the pueo as a sacred protective spirit. The birds always seem to be watching over the land and its people.

The pueo and rainbow card refers to the legend of Kahalaopuna of Mānoa, on O‘ahu. Mānoa Valley is a valley northeast of Honolulu known for being a rainy place. For most of the year, the trade winds regularly blow rain laden clouds over the Ko‘olau Mountains from the northeast. The wind and rain spill down the valley as a heavy mist. The afternoon sun shines into the valley from Honolulu to create a bright rainbow for anyone looking up the valley. Kahalaopuna is the rainbow of Mānoa. She is the daughter of the wind and rain of Mānoa Valley. The legend of Kahalaopuna tells of her betrothal to Kauhi, a prince of Kailua.



Kalo, or taro, is the foundation of the Hawaiian diet. The large gently sloping lowlands of the Hawaiian Islands are particularly well suited for wet-land kalo farming. Kalo was brought by the first Hawaiians, and became their main food source.

The base of the kalo plant is is a starchy tuber called a corm. The Hawaiian word for the korm is kalo. The leaves are called lau or lū‘au. The corm is cooked and pounded into a paste called poi. The leaves are also edible. Both the leaves and corm are poisonous if eaten raw. They must be cooked or soaked in water for a long time to make them edible.

The 5 point card shows the Kalo in a lo‘i. The lo‘i is part of the Hawaiian land division system called an ahupua‘a. The lo‘i is the flooded kalo field that wet-land kalo are grown in. The wet-land kalo is can be more than ten times as productive as the dry-land variety. The wet kalo plants take longer to mature, but the yeilds are higher. The Hawaiians cultivated many varieties of kalo to suit different habitats, and for different purposes. Some kalo are especially large, some have yellow corms, some purple, some are for medicine.

 ‘IlimaIlima Flower


The ‘ilima is an endemic type of hibiscus flower that grows in rocky dry areas unsuitable for many other plants. The small yellow and orange flowers are the official flower of O‘ahu. The flowers are yellow to light orange in color and are less than 1 inch (2 cm) in diameter. The plants have medicinal uses, and the flowers are made into lei.

An ‘ilima lei is very special, and was once reserved only for the ali‘i, the Hawaiian ruling class. An ‘ilima lei is so precious because it takes between 500 - 1000 tiny blossoms to make a lei.

The blossoms bloom in the summer, and attract the Kamehameha butterflies. The Kamehameha butterfly on the 5 point card is one of two endemic species of butterflies in Hawai‘i, and is the Hawaii State Insect. The butterfly is named after the family of King Kamehameha who unified the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian name for the butterfly is pulelehua.

The purple kapa in the ‘ilima bush is an example of some of the different kapa decorating techniques. The purple dye is made from the ‘uki‘uki berry. The embossed pattern is made by pounding the wet wauke fibers with textured mallets.

 Ti, Palmlilly


The kī, or ti plant, is a canoe plant used for roof thatching, clothing, fishing, medicine, food, and food service. The practical importance of the kī makes it also politically and religiously significant. A sign of high ranking kahuna, priest or expert, is to have a lei made of kī. Kī leaves are used as spiritual purifiers and protection. Tall kī stalks with a top of full leaves were carried upright into battle, to let them drop was a sign of surrender.

The black pig, or pua‘a, was brought by the Polynesians. Pigs reproduce very quickly, and are not picky eaters. The Hawaiian pigs were small and fully domesticated. The endemic Hawaiian forests did not have enough large fruit bearing plants for the pigs to survive on their own in the wild. Pua‘a were a treasured resource for any Hawaiian family. Besides the meat, pigs teeth were used as ornamentation, and their bones were used for fishhooks.



The ocean holds more than just fish. Hawaiians know how to use all of the varieties of seaweed available. Limu, seaweed, was considered an essential part of a balanced diet, along with fish and poi. Some limu were also used as medicine. Hawaiians cultivate limu in the ocean just as carefully as the kalo in the lo‘i. Fish are also raised in fresh and salt-water ponds.

The Hawaiians planned some of their activities according to the phases of the moon. Planting and harvesting were regulated by the phases of the moon, as were fishing practices. At certain times of the month or year certain fish were kapu, forbidden from being harvested. This was both to maitain the fisheries, and to maximize the catch with the least effort.

When the full moon shines fishing in the deep ocean is said to be good. The ulua, giant trevally, is a large predatory reef fish that lives mostly close to shore. The larger ones can be found in deeper water preying on tuna. For deep sea fishing, and inter-island trips, Hawaiian outrigger canoes would use sails.

When the seasons change, animals move from their summer home to their winter home. The kōlea, plover, migrates every fall to Hawai‘i from Alaska. The ‘ama‘ama, mullet fish, also migrates from ‘Ewa, on the southwest of O‘ahu, to Lā‘ie, on the northern shore, every year.

 Ma‘o hau hele Hawaiian Hibiscus


The ma‘o hau hele is a large yellow hibiscus, and the State flower. The name ma‘o hau hele, means “green traveling hau” (hibiscus species). This shrub blooms infrequently. The ma‘o hau hele is similar to other hibiscus species, but it is usually green and flowerless for most of the year. Interestingly, the ma‘o hau hele is an African variety of hibiscus, rather than the more commonly seen Asian varieties. The plants only live a few years, and tend to split and break easily. New plants can grow from the fallen branches. Over the years, it may seem like a ma‘o hau hele is creeping away from where it used to be.

The coconut shell cup on the 5 point card is filled with ‘awa, or kava kava. This mildly intoxicating drink is made from soaking the pounded root of the ‘awa plant.

Legend says that the gods Kāne and Kanaloa travelled together across the Hawaiian Islands creating freshwater springs. Kanaloa would point out underground water to Kāne. Kāne would then pierce the ground to create a spring. Together, they would use the water to make ‘awa and drink together.

 ‘UluBreadfruit Tree


‘Ulu can be grown where other crops don’t thrive. The ‘ulu tree is extremely productive, nutritious, and useful for it’s wood and leaves. The ‘ulu was brought by canoe, and was cultivated throughout the tropical Pacific.

The Hawaiian legend of the ‘ulu tree says that during a famine, the god Kū buried himself in the ground, and watered by the tears of his grieving wife, the ‘ulu tree grew from the spot where he was buried. The torso of Kū became the trunk, the branches his arms, and the fruit his head.

The animal under the tree is an ‘īlio. The Hawaiian ‘īlio is an extinct breed of dog that was fed on mostly poi of ‘ulu. The ‘īlio was also known as the “poi dog.” They were bred for food, and valued similarly to pigs.

 Hāpu‘u and Pala‘a Hawaiian Ferns


The hāpu‘u is the Hawaiian tree fern. It can grow up to 20 (7 m) feet high, and is common in many Hawaiian forests. The pala‘a is the Hawaiian lace fern. It is endemic to all of the Hawaiian Islands. It was sacred to Lono, the god of rain, fertility, and peace. It was used as a dye, and is used today as lei. Both ferns have medicinal purposes.

The 5 point card with a young girl in a palaka, checkered, dress is a reminder of a story told by Mary Kawena Pukui. She told a story about when she was a young girl, and how her aunt taught her traditional Hawaiian medicine.

A patient of her aunt had a injured foot. The patient dreamt that a young girl gathered ferns to make a cure for her foot. Following her aunt’s instructions, Mary Kawena Pukui went out into the forest alone at night just before dawn to gather ferns for medicine. She was careful to recite the proper prayers to the gods, and keep the ferns picked with the right hand separate from those picked with the left.

The message of the picture on the card is that we learn by doing. At some point, we must go out on our own to practice the knowledge given to us by those who know.

The third card shows a legendary battle between Hi‘iaka and mo‘o. Hi‘iaka is the youngest sister of Pele the volcano goddess of Hawai‘i, and wears a skirt of pala‘a and Pā‘ū o Hi‘iaka. When she fights the mo‘o sisters of Kauai, She smites them with lightning bolts in her skirt. The mo‘o is a mythical lizard with magical powers, much like the dragons. Mo‘o are usually female and are powerful protectors, or fearsome adversaries. Mo‘o also refers to a person’s ancestry. The long spine of a lizard represents the many generations connected through ancestry.

Lono is represented by the lightning card. Lono is the god of peace and rejuvenation. He is also the god of the dark storm clouds that come from the east, thunder lightning, and rain. On the bottom of the lightning card are a pahu drum, and the Wind Gourd of La‘amaomao. The pahu represents the sound of thunder.

The Wind Gourd of La‘amaomao was used to control the winds. La‘amaomao was a god who had control over the winds. He knew the names of each wind, and the proper chants to control them. The wind could be called into the gourd if they were too strong, or let out if a canoe was caught in doldrums. Generations of the descendants of La‘omaomao used the knowledge passed down to them, and the gourd, to control the winds.

 KukuiCandlenut Tree


The Kukui tree was brought to Hawai‘i for its many uses. The kukui is also known as the candlenut tree. The nuts are full of oil. Hawaiians would burn them for light, and use the oil for medicine and waterproofing. The wood was also used for canoes.

The ‘iwa, is the great frigate bird. If you look at the ‘iwa feet, you will notice that they are not webbed like other sea birds. This is a sea bird that is not waterproof. If it falls in the ocean, it may drown. It catches fish by swooping down to snatch fish with it’s hooked beak near the surface, or it steals fish from other birds. Hawaiians admire this bird for it’s ability to fly long distances, it’s agility, and aggressiveness. The ‘iwa can fly for months without resting. They can fly over 12,000 feet (4000 m) and average 300 miles (480 km) a day.

There is a story about a boy named ‘Iwa that lived with his father Kukui near Makapu‘u. ‘Iwa was the best thief in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Like the story, the ‘iwa bird is known for stealing fish out of the mouths of other seabirds on the wing, and tends to nest in tall trees near the ocean.

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