Hawaii's native plants were welcome discoveries for the Polynesians who first settled the Islands sometime in the sixth century, according to the East Maui Watershed Partnership. The plants they found supplied building and clothing materials, canoes, containers for water and food--as well as the food itself. Many of them still grow in Hawaii. Development and non-native, invasive plants, however, have put many of them on the threatened or endangered species lists.
Wild plumbago (Plumbago zeylanica) is a low, spreading shrub. Happiest in open, sunny sites in scrublands or dry woods, it grows on all the Hawaiian Islands at elevations below 2,000 feet, according to the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Up to 1 foot high, this plumbago has sprawling stems hidden beneath dense, oval, bright-green foliage. The stems produce 2- to-10-inch, sticky-haired stalks with tubular, white blooms. The plant has been a traditional source of black or blue tattoo inks, even though it contains the toxin plumbagine.
A 6-to-10-foot high and wide mallow family shrub, red ilima (Abutilon menziesii) is one of Hawaii's endangered native shrubs. Growing in dry woodlands on Maui, Lanai and Hawaii, it has downy branches with long-stemmed, silvery-green leaves. They catch the ocean breezes, according to the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Yellow-centered, pink or maroon flowers suspended beneath the leaves add to red ilima's charm. Flowers of the Abutilon family have historically supplied leis--floral garlands--used for ceremonial celebrations and as gifts for people arriving and leaving Hawaii.
The perennial mamaki (Pipturus kauaiensis) shrub grows nowhere else on Earth except in the moist forests of Kauai, at elevations between 200 and 4200 feet. Standing 5 to 10 feet high, it has down-covered branches and leaves. Its small clusters of white flowers grow at the juncture of the leaves and stems, according to the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Mamaki was a favorite source of bark for making kapa, the fabric native Hawaiians used for clothing.
White Kauai Rose Mallow
White Kauai rose mallow, or Kauai white hibiscus (Hibiscus waimeae subsp. Hannerae), is a small, mallow family tree. Growing only in the high, northwestern valleys of Kauai, it reaches up to 30 feet tall. Its gray-barked branches have pale-green, oval leaves with down-covered undersides. Unlike most hibiscus, white Kauai rose mallow has fragrant blooms. Lasting only 24 hours, the pink-or-red-stamened flowers progress from white in the morning to pink in the afternoon. The early Hawaiians prized this shrub for its beauty and cultivated its flowers for ornamental purposes, according to the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Today, however, the wild plants are becoming increasingly rare.