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Native plant expert has tips for your landscape and green thumbs share why they garden

A community garden on Oʻahu.
City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation
A community garden on Oʻahu.

In celebration of National Gardening Month, The Conversation visited community gardens in Hawaii Kai and Makiki to collect some of the folksy wisdom shared by people who thrive on getting their hands in the dirt. The Makiki garden was established first in 1975 to provide people living in Honolulu's densely populated areas access to plots.

Flickr - Forest Starr and Kim Starr
ʻŌhiʻa bloom

Nearly one-third of Hawaiian flora is on the U.S. Endangered Species List, and more than 230 species have fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the wild. Sharing knowledge of growing Native Hawaiian plants is what Mike DeMotta, Curator of Living Collections at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, has been doing for the past 15 years.

The Conversation spoke with DeMotta about gardening and tips for planting native species.


On which native plants people should consider for their gardens

MIKE DEMOTTA: I like to call them bulletproof plants. You know, there's a couple of shrubs and small trees that grow in most lowland ecosystems. One of them, of course, is naupaka. Naupaka is a very common coastal shrub that grows along most beaches. It's very drought tolerant, it's salt tolerant and it doesn't usually have many problems with insect pests. So if you wanted a small shrub or even a hedge, naupaka is a really good choice for that if you're living in a hot, dry, you know, it can be a fairly wet part of the island as well, but it can withstand hot and dry. And one of my favorite trees tall, big shrubs is something called alaheʻe.

Alahe’e grows in dry shrubland and dry to moist forests at an elevation of up to 2,700 feet, according to the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Department of Land and Natural Resources
Alahe’e grows in dry shrubland and dry to moist forests at an elevation of up to 2,700 feet, according to the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.

DEMOTTA: Alaheʻe is in the same family as coffee and gardenia. So it does produce very fragrant white flowers. It's a very hearty hardwood. The ancient Hawaiians used to use alaheʻe trunks, the tree itself, for digging sticks. That's how hard the wood is. And it gets to be a pretty good-sized shrub if it's in a protected, well-irrigated spot. But I planted it here at the garden here on Kauaʻi and used it as a hedge. So it's not a trimmed hedge. It's just a line of alaheʻe that is a really good windbreak that is very drought tolerant and produces very fragrant flowers a couple of times out of the year. So you know, depending on where the person is living, do a little bit of homework. You know, we're so lucky now that you can find all this on the internet. If you want to use native plants, just look on the internet. There are a lot of websites that talk about native plants and what their tolerances are. Not a lot of native plants have very showy flowers. There are some native hibiscus though, which I always recommend folks plant. There's a native white hibiscus found on each of the Hawaiian Islands, it's native to each of the islands. And one of the pleasant things about them is that they're very fragrant. They're also pretty low maintenance. Oʻahu has a native species from the Koʻolaus that's pretty low maintenance and quite fragrant. And it can be pruned and kept as, you know, a little shrub. And it's a really wonderful addition. And when it flowers, it flowers profusely. So it is one of the better examples. It's pretty charismatic as native plants go, and it would make a great addition to most landscapes.

On the importance of growing native plants

DEMOTTA: We are really reaching out. And you know, gardening has become really, really popular. And we don't normally do plant sales. We did a plant sale February of last year, and it was really, it was a sellout. Everybody just was really interested in growing their own stuff. And so the whole awareness of gardening and native plants is more heightened now than it's probably ever been. And so I'm really pleased to see that and we have reasons why people should grow native plants in their own landscapes. And it's a thing — something that's been kind of discussed across the United States is more people plant native plants in their yards, you help to preserve germplasm, you help to preserve species for future conservation possibly, you also help to create a patchwork of native habitat. You know, we think about native birds like honeycreepers and whatnot. But there's a lot of native insects in the environment that needs support as well. We grow native plants in our backyards, we provide habitat for native insects, like possibly the yellow-faced bee, which is an important pollinator, and many of the native moths that we're not really entirely familiar with will find a happy home in someone's backyard when they've got a lot of native plants.

Palapalai - Native Fern
Forest Starr and Kim Starr
Palapalai - Native Fern

DEMOTTA: The biggest concern that's been ongoing for the last several years is the Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death. Most, if not all, the hālau that have participated in Merrie Monarch since Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death became a thing have avoided going into the forest to harvest ʻōhiʻa liko lehua and so forth to use in their lei. It's good, and I've been a proponent of this for a very long time, for hula hālau to grow as much of their own plant material as possible. Palapalai ferns are very important in hula, and anybody can grow palapalai. Maile is important, anybody can grow maile virtually anywhere on any island. ʻŌhiʻa lehua, I live in a dry part here on Kauaʻi and I have several ʻōhiʻa lehua trees in my yard as dry and windy as it is at my house. So again, you start off with the foundation, which is the soil, make your soil happy, make it organic, make it really rich, and you can grow any native plant in your yard. So the whole gardening thing and using native plants in your own landscape is something that we're really advocating for right now.

NTBG is running an awareness campaign through May 31 to meet the plants that live in our yards, mountains, and along our streams and coastlines. This interview aired on The Conversation on April 20, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Lillian Tsang is the senior producer of The Conversation. She has been part of the talk show team since it first aired in 2011. Contact her at ltsang@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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