From sun-drenched shore to misty tropical rain forest, the Hawaiian Islands are home to many spectacular vines. A few are natives, and many others have been imported over time from far away places. Different types of vines living in Hawaii often prefer very different habitats. Some vines are easily identified by their flowers or scented foliage. Sorting out which is which is largely a matter of knowing where to look.
Most of Hawaii’s native vines are low-growing indigenous coastal plants, which are also found elsewhere in the Pacific. A few plants did diverge significantly from their original ancestors to become Hawaii’s few endemic vines, many of which have interesting flowers, shaped to fit specific native bird’s beaks. Sweet potatoes and gourds were among the first vines to be brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians, and many more have been introduced since Western contact.
Most of Hawaii’s coastal native vines inhabit the narrow strand zone just above the ocean’s reach. They are adapted to exposed conditions and constant sea spray. Hawaii’s upland native vines are found in the partially shaded understorey of dry to wet forests. Many vines have been introduced to the islands from elsewhere, for ornament, fruit and by accident. Some of these plants have naturalized and others have become serious pests, both to the gardener and native plant communities.
Pohuehue (Ipomoea pes-caprae) This low-sprawling vine, found on loose sand very close to the ocean, has heart-shaped leaves and large purple flowers that resemble morning glorys. These indigenous vines prevent beach erosion and are often used as nesting sites by sea turtles.
Maile (Alyxia olivifolia) Perhaps Hawaii’s most famous native vine, maile is an inconspicuous plant found in semi-shady native forests. Its aromatic leaves occur at intervals along the stems in whorls of three. It bears tiny yellow flowers and small black, olive-shaped fruits.
Stink Maile (Paederia foetida) This aggressive vine, with medium green opposite leaves white flowers, bears no resemblance to true maile, except its name. Stink maile can quickly cover trees and shrubs with its fetid smelling leaves, and is a nuisance to Hawaii gardeners.
Banana Poka (Passiflora mollissima) This vine was first imported to the islands as an ornamental, for its pretty, pendulous blossoms and edible fruit. It quickly escaped cultivation to become a serious threat to upland native forests. Efforts are under way to slow the spread of this invasive vine.
When planting any vine it’s important to consider the ultimate height or spread the vine will attain. Often vines are hard to remove once they are established, so careful planning is a must. Many vines can eventually become quite heavy and will need a sturdy support. Because vines are among the most invasive types of plants, it’s critical to avoid planting a pest that could harm native species.
Vines for the Hawaiian Garden
Blue Jade Vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) This vine’s spectacular blue flowers, borne in hanging clusters, are reason enough to want grow it. It is a moderately fast grower, which needs moist soil, sun to part shade, and shelter from wind and salt spray.
Mandevilla(Mandevilla x amabilis) Mandevilla’s dark green foliage and cheery flowers are the perfect cover for a fence or pergola. They require sun to part shade and moist soil. Several cultivars are available with flowers ranging from light pink to deep red.
Hawaiian Moon Vine (Ipomoea tubifera) The large, white trumpet-shaped flowers of this native vine open at night and are highly fragrant. The Hawaiian moon vine is not to be confused with its cousin, the moon flower vine (I. alba), which looks similar, but is an undesirable invasive.
Nanea (Vigna maritima) Nanea is a very low beach plant with lemon yellow blossoms and delicate, three-lobed leaves. It will thrive in poor soil with full sun, and is a useful ground cover for erosion control.