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Beach Botanizing

I visited a splendid place today. My companions were a small group of plant lovers from the Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden and Clyde Imada from Bishop Museum as chief identifier. Our destination was a remote coastal area in Kau. It wasn’t an easy journey. The path took us through dry, weed infested, and eroded habitat. At times the dust was so thick we had to stop the truck because the road was obscured. After the dust bowls, we crept our way over a’a on a narrow, rough, and difficult jeep trail. The surf break was beautiful but the coastline was a beachcomber’s dream. It was strewn with every kind of ocean trash imaginable. Amidst the junk of the sea and the inhospitable barrenness of the lava, a succulent world of botanical treasures awaited us. Never have I seen such an intact and diverse population of native, coastal strand vegetation. It is a Hawaiian botanical oasis in a desert of rock and weeds.


South Point Photo by Andrew Nisbet

Our group had spent two days “botanizing”. Riding shotgun was Clyde, our botanical expert, with the two volume Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaii in his lap. In search of the familiar, rare and unknown, “What is it Clyde?” was the oft-repeated question. Usually he knew the answer or, after a short bit in the books, found out. Latin names, Hawaiian names, common family names, confusing descriptive terms of taxonomic keys all abounded. The first day we went across the Saddle Road and into the rainforest. The morning of the second day was spent on the mauka lands of Kahuku Ranch. Our last destination was a remote bay off of South Point Road. I am not a beach person. Given the choice, I’d rather head up into the cool mountain mist than bake at the shore. So I wasn’t expecting anything wonderful. The drive down to the bay didn’t help. It was tortuous, both on the vehicle and the passengers. My attitude and expectations first began to change as we approached brackish ponds and passed through the largest beach naupaka (Scaevola) stand I’ve ever seen. Though a completely wild patch, it looked trimmed, irrigated, and planted. There were a couple hundred acres of solid naupaka, three feet off the ground, punctuated here and there with majestic heliotrope trees. Then Peter Van Dyke of the Ethnobotanical Garden made a statement that really piqued my natural history sensibilities, “You know, I think this place is my favorite spot of Hawaiian habitat.”

Slowly we bumped and lurched along the lava and sand path through the naupaka. Even before we stopped and got out of the vehicle my comrades began to mark off the species excitedly: pohuehue (Ipomea), pauohiiaka (Jacquemontia), hinahina (Heliotropium), nehe (Lipochaeta), naio (Myoporum), ilima (Sida), nohu (Tribulus), akulikuli (Sesuvium.) Once out of the vehicle we made our way to the ponds. At my feet along a seldom used path was a succulent world of Hawaiiana. My first surprise was the Myoporum. I have seen naio in numerous habitats on the island including coastal strand. I realize it has many different forms. But the naio at my feet in the sandy pahoehoe was incredibly unique. Growing as a matting ground cover, only a few inches tall, it gave no hint that it was the same species we had viewed as 30 foot tall trees the day before in the forest. It’s leaves were thick, fleshy and succulent. “Is this a separate species?” I asked Clyde. “I don’t know, but right now they [the taxonomists] have all the Myoporum lumped together. Though this certainly looks different.” I was out of my realm and began to ask the child’s question over and over again, “What’s that?”


Makaloa Photo by Bishop Meseum

Ohelo kai (Lycium)—the Hawaiian tomato whose little fruits are edible though a little salty. Pauohiiaka—the vine that covered up Pele’s little sister Hiiaka when Pele left her on the beach too long. Its soft vines and tiny leaves protected her from the sun. Hinahina—unlike its large tree-like naturalized cousin, is a miniature succulent groundcover. The nohu was especially interesting to me. It is our native Hawaiian puncture vine whose flowers are as delicate and aromatic as its thorns are fat and pokey. Next to the ponds was a substantial stand of the rare makaloa (Cyperus.) This native sedge is used to weave very intricate and comfortable mats. The art of makaloa weaving was all but lost until recently revived by native Hawaiian practitioners like Aunty Elizabeth Lee. According to some cultural experts, this makaloa population is one of the largest known on the island. The upright native sedge was a perfect accent among the rest of the native creepers.

Out of time we had to leave. Everybody else decided to walk rather than ride out on the bumpy road. They had no problem keeping up with the vehicle’s slow pace. Once back in the dustbowls we had fun disappearing then reappearing through the thick red clouds of volcanic dust and ash. Beyond the dust, in the desolate pasture of lantana, apple-of-Sodom, and alien grasses we stopped and observed a herd of buffalo. American Bison on Hawaiian plains a short distance from an isolated, fragile, world of rare and coastal succulents. As we drove back to Kona that coastal strand slowly wove its tiny vines and soft leaves into my consciousness. At home tonight I couldn’t stop thinking about the dense naupaka, the brackish scent of the air, and the natural wonders on the lava and sand. Two days of botanizing with knowledgeable folks in a variety of terrain was really wonderful. I had made new botanical acquaintances, both human and plant. And I understand what Peter meant about his favorite Hawaiian habitat. I think we saved the best for last.

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