Some plants are recognized for their visual beauty, for their fascinating shapes or smells, for their rarity, or for their ethnobotanical or research value. Many offer combinations of these characteristics.
We invite you to experience these plants. If you live near one of our gardens, make a date to see these plants first hand by visiting tours.ntbg.org and selecting the garden of your choice. Regardless, we hope you enjoy seeing some of these remarkable creations of nature.
Kahanu Featured Plant: `Ōhi`a `ai or mountain apple
Early Polynesians introduced `ōhi`a `ai (Syzgium malaccense), also called mountain apple, to Hawai`i.
This evergreen forest tree can reach 60 feet or higher and is recognizable by its oval glossy green leaves and bright pink to dark-red puff-like flowers which precede the emergence of pear-shaped fruits. These fruits are prized for their crisp, refreshing flesh, ranging in color from purplish to bright or light red, pink, and white. They are characterized as “refreshing” but also have a “puckery” quality.
`Ōhi`a `ai is used medicinally over a broad geographic range, mostly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, for treating mouth and throat infections, stomach problems, and other ailments. The tree’s bark is used to produce dyes for coloring kapa (cloth bark), its wood is strong, and it also makes a fine shade tree, but it’s the sweet fruits for which the tree is best known.
Look for `ōhi`a `ai growing in the Canoe Garden near the bamboo.
Best seen: year-round
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=10916
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: ‘Ape
Fluttering in the breeze, ‘ape (Alocasia macrorrhizos) leaves look like oversized glossy green fans lined with diagonal veins radiating from a prominent midrib. One common English name, elephant ear, is often used to describe ‘ape (pronounced ah-pay), one of the most commonly cultivated plants in Pacific Island cultures.
Like kalo (taro), also a member of the aroid family (Araceae), ‘ape has an edible corm which can be eaten if properly cooked, but is less important from a cultural or nutritional standpoint. The corm, a thick semi-subterranean stem, contains oxalate crystals which irritate the throat and as such is generally eaten only in times of scarcity.
Its tremendous leaves grow skyward and make for a handsome landscaping plant or can be used in large floral arrangements. Alternately, the leaves make good impromptu umbrellas and can be used as wrapping or to cover an imu (earth oven) for trapping heat and steam.
There is a large clump of ‘ape growing in front of the Pi‘ilanihale heiau and near the ‘awa plantings in the Canoe Garden.
Best seen: year round
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=392
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Noni
One of the most well-known medicinal plants in the Pacific is Morinda citrifolia, called noni in Hawaiian and Indian mulberry in English.
Noni grows as a small to medium-sized evergreen tree which is easily identified by clusters of curiously misshapen fruits roughly the size of an apple. It’s these fruits, which range from bright green to yellowish-white and eventually translucent pale gray, that make noni such an important Polynesian introduction in Hawai‘i. Countless studies have been conducted examining compounds said to be effective at fighting a broad range of ailments when taken internally or applied topically.
The fruit of this handsome member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae) has a strong smell and flavor many find disagreeable which is why it is sometimes called a “famine food.” Beyond medicinal applications, noni has long been used as a dye plant with its roots and bark yielding vibrant reds and yellows.
Noni trees can be found in the Canoe Garden as you approach the heiau from the parking area. Several trees also grow along the Canoe Garden trail along the coast.
Best seen: produces fruit and flower intermittently throughout the year
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=7715
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: ‘Ulu
The potential of breadfruit, a member of the fig family, as a food staple for the hundreds of millions hungry or malnourished people in the world’s tropical regions is an important focus for NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute. Kahanu is home to the world’s largest collection of breadfruit, which provides plant material for the Institute’s Global Hunger Initiative.
‘Ulu, as it’s called in Hawaiian, has grown in the Pacific for more than 3,000 years and was spread by humans from island to island. Domestication resulted in hundreds of distinct varieties in cultivation, with Kahanu Garden having 120. Regrettably some of these varieties have already disappeared from their islands of origin.
Breadfruit is valued as a prolific fruit tree which provides an extraordinarily large volume of high-protein, nutrient-rich fruits in a broad range of ecological conditions with minimal care. The fruit, leaves, roots, bark, wood, and flowers are used from Melanesia and Micronesia across Polynesia to Africa, the islands of the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean, and Central America.
Most of the collection is planted in a grove near the public entrance.
Best seen: year round; most varieties mature in Hawai‘i around late summer or autumn
Early summer: long, male flowers appear
Mid-summer: dense spike-covered green fruits
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our varieties pages by the Breadfruit Institute.
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Kamani
Kamani (Calophyllum inophyllum) is a large tree in the mangosteen family (Clusiaceae), found from East Africa to the Pacific. It is favored for its reddish brown hardwood which can be fashioned into bowls for food or drinking ceremonial beverages, as well as canoes, furniture, temple carvings, and other objects.
It was introduced to Hawai‘i by the early Polynesian settlers, and in the Islands is considered among the best woods for carving. The flowers, leaves, seeds, and oil are also very useful: treating eye injuries, cuts, and scrapes; providing light, shade, and dye; making lei, children’s marbles, and whistles.
Kamani can grow over 50 feet tall and has simple, glossy green leaves which contrast with the dozens of yellow and white small fragrant short-lived flowers that bloom simultaneously. In Hawai‘i the name “false kamani” is often heard but that tree bears no relation to the true kamani.
Three large kamani grow in the Canoe Garden.
Best seen: flowers periodically during the year, particularly in late summer or early autumn
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=2196
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: ‘Uala
The Hawaiian food crops kalo (taro) and ‘ulu (breadfruit) are perhaps better known, but ‘uala (sweet potato) has been called “the second Hawaiian staple.” This tuberous root plant is extremely adaptable and can thrive in dry conditions and sand or ash-based soil, making it a suitable starch source where kalo or ‘ulu are not practical.
The running vines are an attractive groundcover and the potato itself is an excellent source of nutrition, especially when steamed or baked. Like kalo, ‘uala can be mashed and eaten as poi. ‘Uala typically matures within 3-7 months of planting, giving rise to the Hawaiian expression: he ‘uala ka‘ai ho‘ōla koke i ka wi (sweet potato is the food that ends famine quickly).
Unlike most Polynesian-introduced plants which followed human migration from Southeast Asia eastward across the Pacific and eventually to Hawai‘i, ‘uala (Ipomoea batatas, a member of the morning glory family, originated in South America. How it reached Hawai‘i remains the subject of debate.
‘Uala grows in more than one planting area at Kahanu. Look for masses of creeping purple-veined green leaves with attractive pink flowers growing low to the ground on pu‘e (mounds).
Best seen: throughout the year
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=6530
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Naupaka
One of the most common coastal plants in the Pacific Islands is Scaevola taccada, best known in Hawai‘i as naupaka. This dense, spreading shrub typically grows low to the ground in patches. The bright green leaves are somewhat succulent and waxy. Naupaka’s flowers are white, often with purple streaks, and irregularly shaped with all five petals on one side, giving the blossom its characteristic “half-flower” look.
This blossom has inspired many variations on an often-told legend about a young princess and prince (in some versions he’s a fisherman) who were forbidden to be together. One of them flees to the mountains and the other remains near the sea. Where both perish, two forms of naupaka - beach and mountain - arise. The half-flower born by each is an enduring symbol of their unfulfilled love.
On a happier note, the plant’s seeds can be strung into lei and the leaves are often crushed and rubbed against the inside of snorkel masks to prevent them from fogging up.
Like many coastal areas in Hawai‘i, the naupaka in Kahanu Garden grows near the water’s edge, crawling over the black lava rocks.
Best seen: naupaka looks good year-round and blooms intermittently.
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=10272
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Passion fruit
One of the most pervasive (and edible) plants in Hawai‘i today is the South American native Passiflora edulis. Also known in Hawai‘i by the name liliko‘i, this plant produces large numbers of smooth globular fruits ranging from purplish green to yellow and even black.
Inside the fruit is a gelatinous substance filled with hard seeds. The seasonal fruit isn’t so much eaten as it is sucked or slurped from its skin and is a favorite for juices, jellies, and baked goods like liliko‘i pie. The vine bears spectacular purple, white, and yellowish green flowers.
However, in Hawai‘i passion fruit is extremely aggressive and can quickly overtake other plants, choking them out and forcing them to compete for light, nutrients, space, and water. There are more than 30 species of introduced Passiflora in the Islands including the wildly invasive Passiflora mollissima (banana poka).
Passion fruit grows under close supervision in small pockets of the garden. Look for dense masses of tri-lobed dark green leaves with palm-sized yellow fruits growing on or over other plants or objects. With diligence, liliko‘i can be kept in check and even enjoyed for its fruit.
Best seen: throughout the year though fruits are seasonal
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Kō hāpai
Kō hāpai (Saccharum officinarum) is one of the roughly 40 varieties of sugar cane growing at Kahanu. It grows in clumps of tall green-gold stalks with irregular vertical maroon markings on the plant’s surface. Kō is Hawaiian for “sugar cane” and hāpai means “pregnant”, a reference to the plant’s swollen internodes.
Kō was introduced to Hawai‘i by early voyaging Polynesians who used this edible member of the grass family (Poaceae) for thatching, windbreaks, borders, medicinally, and, of course, as a sweetener. The early Hawaiians regularly chewed on freshly cut cane because the plant’s fibers helped clean teeth while the juice helped slake thirst when drinking water was not readily available.
It was the foreign introduction of non-Hawaiian sugar cane varieties in the 1830s that fueled an industry that saw massive waves of immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Azores, and other places that shaped Hawai‘i’s modern society.
Look for a half-dozen clumps of tall, lanky sugar cane near the beginning of the self-guided tour route.
Best seen: throughout the year
Want to see more information on this species of plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=10117
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Baobab
Few trees in the world can claim the baobab’s distinctive form and function. This singular genus, Adansonia, with just eight species native to Madagascar, Africa, and Australia, is used for food, medicine, fiber, water storage, and even as houses, pubs, prisons, and bus stops. With gargantuan trunks that can reach epic size and disproportionately small branches pointing skyward, baobabs are also called “upside-down trees.”
The long-lived trees (possibly 2,000 years) that grow in dry scrubland or savanna are often barren of leaves and have gigantic caudices (oversized bulbous trunks).This Malagasy species, Adansonia madagascariensis, is native to the dry, deciduous forests of northwestern Madagascar and notable for its showy red flowers. According to one native legend, a person who picks a baobab flower will be eaten by a lion. Other oral traditions indicate that eating baobab seeds may attract crocodiles. Kahanu visitors needn’t worry about lions or crocodiles!
Look for a large baobab tree as you enter the gate just to the right and beyond the Visitor kiosk.
Best seen: throughout the year
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=131
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Ki
Cordyline fruiticosa is known in Hawaiian as ki or la‘i, though it is most commonly called “ti”. One of the roughly 30 Polynesian introduced plants, it is very common in both low- and medium-elevation wet forests and common in Hawaiian landscaping.
Few plants rival ki in terms of beauty and function. When the first Polynesian voyagers brought stems of ki plants, they must have found them very easy to transport on their canoes and replant upon arrival. The broad, smooth, slightly-waxy leaves were (and still are) used for wrapping, cooking, and serving food, as a means to cool a feverish forehead, for wrapping hot stones to apply to sore muscles, for weaving and plaiting into pā‘ū (hula skirts) and lei. The leaves are also tied to fishing nets to attract fish, in tropical arrangements and, among other things, planted almost everywhere for good luck and protection.
Ki is grown in many parts of Kahanu including the Canoe Garden and all around the heiau. There is an especially large and colorful collection of plants before the large terraced wall of the heiau.
Best seen: Ki flowers several times during the year, but its green, red, and variegated leaves are consistently beautiful all year long.
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=3386
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Niu or coconut palm
Although Cocos nucifera, a member of the palm family (Arecaceae), grows in greatest concentrations near the equator, they are found as far north as the Hawaiian Islands where they were introduced as one of nearly 30 “canoe plants” (in other words, contrary to popular belief, these palms are not native to the Islands).
While Hawai‘i has fewer varieties of coconut palms than other regions of the world, these trees (called niu in Hawaiian) play a significant role in Hawaiian culture. Around the world the coconut palm is known as the “tree of life” for its countless uses for food, shelter, medicine, furniture, thatching, cordage, and innumerable other tools.
Slow starters in the beginning, after a period of about six or seven years the trees grow about a foot a year and can reach a height of 100 feet in as many years. Some varieties produce hundreds or even thousands of coconuts (which are the seeds) in a year. Coconut water is considered a life-sustaining beverage, especially on atolls or during long ocean voyages.
Kahanu Garden has coconut palms throughout the garden, even on the top of the Pi‘ilanihale heiau! Look for clusters of coconut palms in the Mary Wishard Coconut Collection which grows between the heiau and the coastline.
Best seen: year-round
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=3054
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: “Cuban red” banana
Kahanu has one of the most extensive collections of Musa (banana) varieties in Hawai‘i, with at least 20 different banana types. M. acuminata includes this “Cuban red” cultivar, which is noteworthy for its reddish green skin and trunk. The flesh itself is a yellowish light orange and is very sweet. It has a very large trunk and can easily reach 20 feet.
One common misconception is that bananas are trees when in fact they are giant herbaceous plants with soft but efficiently “engineered” moisture-filled heavy stems and no true wood at all. Bananas spread from suckers (in Hawai‘i the term for child - “keiki” - is used) which grow as rhizomes from the side of the parent plant.
Banana plants are easy to transplant and spread readily. The fruit is tasty and nutritious. The leaves and stems are useful for everything from lining earth ovens to impromptu rain protection, eating implements, paper, clothing, and thatching. All this made bananas a “must have” plant for the voyaging Polynesians who first settled Hawai‘i.
Look for “Cuban red” bananas growing in clumps near the start of the Canoe Garden path.
Best seen: throughout the year
Want to see more information on the species? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=7767
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Hala
With its thick, ribbed trunk, arcing ribbons of prop roots, and dense clusters of stiff spiked leaves, few Hawaiian plants are as distinctive as hala (Pandanus tectorius). Recognized both as a Polynesian introduced plant and a native, fossil evidence proved hala predated the first humans who probably brought it in their canoes for its many uses. These included making sails, baskets, mats, fans, clothing, mattresses, pillows, and footwear.
Flowers and bracts of the male plant (called hinano) are use for scenting kapa (bark cloth), braiding, and as a mild laxative. The female tree’s prominent fruits are sometimes mistaken for pineapple although they are unrelated. The fruit break apart into green and yellow phalanges or “keys” which can be used for lei and head garlands. The edible fleshy pulp can, however, irritate the mouth and so customarily it was only eaten by the poor or in times of famine
The coastal section of Kahanu Garden, surrounding the Fisherman’s Cottage, Hale Ho‘okipa, and north of the Pi‘ilanihale heiau is part of one of the largest remaining hala forests in Hawai‘i.
Best seen: year-round
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=8353
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Leopard tree
In contrast to the Polynesian and native Hawaiian plants Kahanu Garden is known for, the leopard tree (Caesalpinia ferrea) is an exotic surprise. This large South American tree is easily recognized by its distinctive camouflage-like mottled bark. Patches of brown, tan, khaki, and white, make for an attractive ornamental landscaping tree.
This member of the bean family (Fabaceae), also called Brazilian ironwood, is known as pau (or pao) ferro in Portuguese, and is popular as a shade tree along streets and parks in the tropics. When in flower, clusters of bright yellow flowers are beautifully framed by a dense canopy of small deep green leaves.
The tree has been studied for its possible medicinal value and used for various treatments in Brazil. In addition, some guitars highly prized by musicians have a "pao ferro" fingerboard.
Kahanu Garden's leopard tree (there is only one) grows on the left-hand side of the cement strip driveway just after a cluster of loulu palms and a jak-fruit tree (on the right). Look for it when going from the garden's entry kiosk at the entry to the self-guided tour area.
Best seen: throughout the year (blooms may be prominent during spring and summer)
Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=2047
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Kalo manini pelu
Kalo manini 'pelu (Colocasia esculenta) is one of 300+ varieties of kalo (taro) cultivated by early Hawaiians. This "canoe plant" is spiritually and nutritionally one of the most important Polynesian introduced plants. According to Hawaiian legend, kalo was the firstborn son of W kea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother) and is considered the "elder brother" of the Hawaiian people.
Probably native to Southern Asia, kalo has been a staple food source around the world for thousands of years. In Hawai'i kalo is pounded into poi and used medicinally, but must be cooked thoroughly in order to break down the calcium oxalate crystals in the leaves, stem, and corm.
This particular variety of kalo has a variegated stem and shares the name "manini" with a reef fish, bananas, sugar cane, and sweet potato. The term "manini" describes the striped nature of these plants and fish, a trait they all share.
Kalo manini 'pelu can be found in Kahanu's Canoe Garden growing in a dryland m la (patch) on the approach to the Pi'ilanihale heiau. It is growing amongst a collection of some 40 varieties, so look carefully for the kalo with striped stems and a tag indicating its name.
Best seen: throughout the year
Want to see more information on kalo in general? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=3155
Kahanu Garden Featured Plant: Kō honua‘ula or kō niho puhi Kō honua‘ula (synonymous with kō niho puhi) (Saccharum officinarum) is a distinctive sugar cane with a dark purple stem and purple leaves. Kō means “sugar cane” and “honua‘ula” literally means “red earth.” Often referred to as the “Hawaiian sugar cane,” it is frequently mistaken to be the only Hawaiian variety of cane when, in fact, there were once over 100 Hawaiian varieties. The alternate name kō niho puhi means “eel’s tooth” sugar cane owing to the sharp points of the auxiliary buds. Be careful when feeling the buds as they are known to “bite!” This is one of the many Hawaiian sugar cane varieties that can be found in Kahanu’s canoe garden near the beginning of the self-guided tour. Best seen: year-round Want to see more information on this plant? Visit our Meet the Plants page at www.ntbg.org/plants/plant_details.php?plantid=10117