Monday, March 18, 2013

Hawaiian Plants: Names in Hawaiian, Names in Latin, Names in English

View from Richardson Beach, Hilo, Hawaii
View from Richardson Beach, Hilo, Hawaii
    Despite being part of the United States, Hawaiian plants have strong ties to Asia. The Asian connection suggests interesting comparisons to plants of the Americas. What plant was used to dye kapa purple? Are those almonds on the beach? 
Fruits of the tropical almond, Terminalia catappa, Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii
 almonds? on Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii
    Does the Hawaiian poppy have yellow sap like the similar-looking plant of Colorado?

    To look up answers to these questions I needed to know the name of the plant.

Plant named in Hawaiian
Plant identified with Hawaiian name
    For me, plant names let people talk about plants.  As a serious botanist, I would like to use whatever name the person to whom I’m talking uses.  I long ago decided I had to be bi-lingual, using common names with some people and scientific names with others.  Common names are local names. Even if we got everyone in the English-speaking world to agree to use the same common names, there would be different common names for the same plant in French, German, Polish, Arabic...or Hawaiian.

        One plunges Hawaiian plant identification to find they are called pohuehue, kukui, liliko’i...


      Scientific names were created to cut through the confusion resulting from multiple languages. The idea is that each species has only one scientific name. The scientific name is in Latin for historic reasons--when the system was set up, in the 1750‘s, Latin was the language that unified educated Europeans. The system works today.

     I can go from pohuehue to find that the plant's scientific name is Ipomoea pes-caprae, which in English is the beach morning glory.  

pohuehue, Ipomoea pes-caprae, beach morning glory
pohuehue, Ipomoea pes-caprae, beach morning glory

[Technical bit:  foreign words in an English text are italicized. Both the Hawaiian common names and the scientific name, which is considered to be in Latin, are therefore italicized.]

    Pohuehue is a favorite of mine:  a plant with bright purple flowers found across the tropical beaches of the world. There are lots of morning glories, genus Ipomoea, most of them in the New World tropics. How did pohuehue get to Hawaii?  By the seeds floating in from elsewhere, no doubt.

Ipomoea pes-caprae on a beach in Taiwan
Ipomoea pes-caprae on a beach in Taiwan 
kukui Aleurites moluccana, candlenut
kukui, Aleurites moluccana, candlenut
    Kukui is Aleurites moluccana, candlenut. (Plant family Euphorbiaceae, related to poinsettias). It was brought to Hawaii by the Polynesians because it was an important, useful plant. Candlenut literally was used for candles, the seeds stuck on coconut midribs and lit. The oil was also pressed out and put into stone lamps. Husks and roots were the source of browns and blacks for dyeing kapa cloth and in tatoos. Seeds were roasted and mashed with salt to make a relish. Seeds and flowers were made into leis, many plant parts were taken as medicine. The wood was used in canoes and fish net floaters. And more. Of course you import a tree that is that useful!

unidentified passion flower from Costa Rica
unidentified passion flower from Costa Rica
banana poka, Passiflora mollissima, near Volcano, Hawaii
banana poka, Passiflora mollissima, near Volcano, Hawaii

    Liliko’i is the edible passion fruit, also called passion flower, Passiflora edule. You can get liliko’i mousse in fine restaurants like Merriman’s. The passion fruits are native mainly to the Americas where most of the 351 species in the genus Passiflora live (plant family Passifloraceae). At least four have naturalized in Hawaii in the last 200 years, and one, banana poka, Passiflora mollissima, is a serious weed in wet forests. The name passion flower comes from the complicated flower, in which New World missionaries saw a whole series of Christian symbols. Because they are almost all vines with  recognizably related, rather fantastic flowers and round fruits full of juice-covered seeds (most are not tasty) passion flowers are easy to identify. 

    I still don't know how the piece of kapa I saw in a museum was dyed pale purple. Perhaps what I saw was faded red from noni (Morinda sp.) or hibiscus dye, or a lavender from sea urchins. 

prickly poppy, Argemone polyanthemos, western Nebraska
prickly poppy, Argemone polyanthemos in western Nebraska.
The Hawaiian puka kala looks very like this
   Puka kala is Argemone glauca, called prickly poppy in English. It is--mysteriously to me--a close relative of and very similar to Argemone polyanthemos of the plains of central North America. Both are related to cultivated poppies, but not as closely as they are to each other. Both do have scary-looking thick yellow or yellow-orange colored sap. Prickly poppies are pretty toxic, although I can’t think who would want to bite through the spines to leaves that bleed yellow. How did it get to Hawaii? Unknown.

tropical almond Terminalia catappa seedling, Happy Grove Jamaica, Dec. 1978
tropical almond, Terminalia catappa seedling,
Happy Grove, Jamaica December 1977.
caterpillar enjoying tropical almond leaves, Happy Grove, Jamaica, Dec. 1978
Caterpillar enjoying tropical almond leaves,
Happy Grove,  Jamaica, December 1977.
    The almonds on the beach were false kamani, also called kamani haole and kamani ula. The scientific name is Terminalia catappa, in the combretum family, Combretaceae, a group of tropical trees and shrubs. "Real" almonds, Prunus amygdalus, (rose family, Rosaceae) are quite different and are related to apples and pears. False kamani is found on many tropical beaches and has been transplanted around the world. There were a number of them growing along the beach in Happy Grove, Jamaica, when I led a class field trip there in 1977. I discovered seedlings unfurling their first leaves in the beach drift of the shore and watched caterpillars as long as my hand munch their way through the thick leaves. False kamani is native to the tropical Pacific and its English common names are Indian almond, tropical almond and even the misleading name West Indian almond. My sources say the fruits are edible, worth remembering in case of shipwreck.

References I consulted: 

Baldwin, R. E. 1978. Hawaii's poisonous plants. Peterograph Press, Hilo. 

Hall, J. B. 2004. A hiker's guide to trailsie plants in Hawai'i. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu.

Hargreaves, D. and B. 1964,. Tropical trees of Hawaii. Hargreaves Company, Inc., Honolulu.

Island Expat (accessed 3/15/13)

Kapa Hawaii.  Kapa design elements and dyes. 2006-2012.  Kapa Hawaii LLC. (accessed 3/17/13)

Little, E. J. Jr. and R. G. Skolmen, 1989, Agricultural Handbook no. 679 Common forest trees of Hawaii. Online 2003 (accessed 3/17/13)

Merlin, M. D. 1977. Hawaiian forest plants. Oriental Publishing Company, Honolulu.

Kathy Keeler
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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I've been looking everywhere for the Hawaiian names of plants and this helped me find a website with tons of them. I really appreciate it.