Monday, March 11, 2013

Visiting Hawaii

   I’m just back from a visit to Hawaii.  For me, Hawaii is the Big Island. I lived there in 1981-2, doing plant ecology research. I’m a tourist these days, but feel like a former resident when I visit. 
Colorado in March

   The first thing that struck me was the colors. We left a Colorado that was powder blue, white and light brown.

    The Hilo side of the Big Island is green--toweringly green, diversely green, envelopingly green--the sky deep blue with white clouds, the ocean midnight blue.
Hilo area, March

Kona area, March

     The Kona side is green where they water, but the natural landscape is shades of brown and black with the occasional reddish highlight and vaguely green shrubs with tiny leaves under an azure sky.

Waimea (Kamuela) in March
     This trip we stayed in Waimea (also called Kamuela to distinguish it from several other Waimeas) at 2500’ where the road from Kona to Hilo goes around the shoulders of snowcapped Mauna Kea. That area is the intense light green of cattle pastures, ankle deep in tropical grasses with the gray green of towering ironwood trees (Casuarina equistifolia) and, most of the time we were there, gray skies with wind-driven drizzle.         

     The prevailing winds, causing unequal rainfall, make these stark contrasts.  None of these areas gets frost. Hilo is the wettest city in the United States with about 125” of rain a year. Kona is the vacation destination because its annual rainfall is less than 15”. With irrigation they have beautiful golf courses and flowering shrubs. 

      For the midwinter botanist, it was a joy to be catapulted back into midsummer. Hawaii’s tomatoes were locally vine-ripened.  The oranges and papayas came off a nearby tree. Trees and shrubs were flowering.

       My husband and I enjoyed beaches, restaurants and museums. I took nearly 400 photos in 7 days, almost all of plants. In all my pictures--over my lifetime--there are lots of a plants, a few animals, and very rarely, a person or building. Even where there is a crowd, I turn my camera on the vegetation. 

     Much of the visible Hawaiian vegetation is introduced from elsewhere in the world.  A modest native flora of some 1030 species on all the islands has been supplemented by hundreds of species brought by humans (2499 plants are in the Flora of Hawaii project list to date). Some of those plants remain well-behaved plantings, but others have gone wild and are now maintaining their populations independent of people. 

   Consequently, there are some interesting stories.  

    Guava, Psidium guava, the same plant whose fruit makes guava jellies and guava juice, is a shrub doing much too well across Hawaii, taking over hillsides and crowding out native vegetation. 

    Despite seeming small to people who don’t live there, all the Hawaiian islands are surprisingly rugged with remote inaccessible wild areas so that when an introduced organism gets away, it is very hard to bring it under control. One conspicuous example is the coqui frog. Introduced to the Hilo area from Puerto Rico sometime in the 1980s --since I lived there--the coqui frog, Eleutherodactylus coqui, has increased to large populations. When the frogs call at night--most nights, all year-- they are loud and can be very irritating.  For now, all you can do is close the window.  

      The African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata in the plant family Bignoniaceae, related to catalpa) was clearly brought in for its beauty.  It is native to tropical Africa, but tulip describes the general shape of the flowers, not any close kinship with tulips.  First introduced to Hawaii in 1871, it was reintroduced in 1915 and has been used for reforestation.  Today the African tulip tree has naturalized and can be found throughout the forests all over the wet zone. It flowers all year and is usually part of the forest canopy, so it makes a handsome splash of color across the forest. 

     The bamboo orchid, Arundina graminifolia, grows widely on the roadsides in the Hilo area. Years ago I picked an armful, like gathering roadside sunflowers in Nebraska, for a friend who had come for a conference in Honolulu.  She was awed to get a huge bouquet of orchids. I invested nothing but time.

      I have always imagined a Hawaiian property owner grumbling, “rats, another of those darned orchids” as she weeds it out of her foundation plantings.

References consulted:

Hall, J. B. 2004.   A hiker’s guide to trailside plants of Hawaii. Honolulu, Mutual Publishing.

Kaus, F. and P. A. Thomas. Coqui & greenhouse frogs: alien Caribbean frogs in Hawaii  08 February 2000 Hawaii Systems at Risk Project. 08 March 1999, updated 28 January 2009. Accessed March 10, 2013.

Wagner, W. L., D. R. Herbst, and D. H. Lorence. 2005-. Flora of the Hawaiian Islands website. [insert date accessed March 2013]

Kathy Keeler
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