Considered by many to be among the most beautiful of the tropical trees, ōhiʻaʻ ai certainly delivers in the color department. Many are flowering now, in March or April, with the pom-pomish blossoms bursting along the branches as well as the trunk of the tree. When they shed their many stamens, incredible pink to purplish carpets can be found, giving hikers another reason to hit the trails (there is also a variety with white flowers). The fruit generally mature in summer and fall (though this is variable) with two or three, sometimes even four harvests! Apple-like in skin color, more pear-like in shape and taste, the fruit are small, just two to three inches long, and delicate in taste as well as staying power - their tendency to bruise easily means that they are best enjoyed right away, making them a special island treat. Mountain apple preserves and pickling are alternate routes. Brought to Hawaii by the early Polynesians, this canoe plant was a true "giving tree," providing food, shade, medicine, wood, and dye. Its giving continues through the present in home landscapes as well as wet lowland forests, usually on the windward sides of our islands.
It was at Waimea Canyon that I first saw these smallest of the tropicbirds, the koaʻeʻkea. They soared, circled and displayed in courtship ritual, and were easily identifiable with their fabulous tails, black diagonal steaks across their wings, and black stripe along the eyes. They favor steep-sided cliffs for nesting and rearing their young, and are rarely seen off the wing otherwise. Though they are tremendous fliers that can sustain long oceanic foraging trips, their stubby legs make them ungainly on land. A single splotchy egg is laid cliffside, but forks of trees, as well as in scrapes in the ground will also suffice for nests. When not breeding, the white-tailed tropic bird forages at sea. Mālolo are a favorite food, which they can take in flight, but they are also known to take the plunge, hovering above their prey and then diving steeply right into the drink, seizing their hapless prey with their stout and serrated bill.
Let's do the twist. Place a pili grass seed in water, and it's long and twined awn will begin contortions that will amaze. In it's natural environment, this response enables the barbed end of the seed to be screwed into the soil, and have earned the grass its botanical name, Heteropogon contortus, and its Hawaiian name, "pili" which means to cling or stick. It's a beautiful tussock grass, forming large clumps with a two to five foot spread. Pili grass loves the sun and can do well in dry, coastal environments. Its pleasant scent, color, and durability made it the choice grass for thatching, and is likely why Hawaii is famous for its "little grass shacks." On Kaho'olawe, pili plays a big role in restoration efforts, growing well despite low rainfall and poor soils. Bales of pili are are scattered about the Mars-like terrain, catching wind-blown sediments and serving as a growing medium for natives such as aʻaliʻi.
Loved by monarchs - queens and butterflies alike. That's the claim to fame of these lavender or white gems of the crown flower. Pua kalaunu was a favorite of Queen Lili‘uokalani; a quilt patterned with the flower adorns her bed at Washington Place, as the long-lasting lei adorned her neck. Crown flower is also the host plant for the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillars gobble up the thick and wooly leaves. Known to botanists as Calotropis gigantea, this large shrub and member of the milkweed family first arrived in Hawaii in 1871. It produces a white, sappy milk that contains calcium oxalate and a cardiac glycoside, two reasons why the crown flower made #5 on the "Top Ten Inquiries About Plants to the Hawaii Poison Hotline."
Lei makers often soak the flowers in cold water to remove any sap, and bathe their hands in lotion before working with the flowers. Goggles may be worn to prevent the tearing and swelling that results from squirting flowers. A good sixty to seventy flowers are needed to craft a typical lei, so you may want to plant your own Calotropis gigantea. The plants are hardy, love the sun, and can grow in a variety of soils. Propagate by plunking a branch into water for a couple of weeks. After it roots, outplant and water well once a week. With luck, it might become the crowning glory of your yard.
Visit any of the many tidepools here in Hawaii and you will likely meet up with Istiblennius zebra, known locally as pāoʻo, zebra rockskipper, zebra blenny, or jumping jack. Their color can range from blackish to greyish brown with vertical banding, hence the zebra name.
They are a bit comical looking, with a blunt, froggy mouth and froggy eyes, and an upright flap atop their head. And speaking of froggy, these guys can hop! Being tidepool residents, pāoʻo are quite wary of predators, and will dart under a rock, or leap on over to a neighboring tidepool for a quick get-away. They can slither their long, laterally compressed bodies like an eel, and seem to favor curling their tails around like a "J" when resting. Similar to other blennioids, they have a long dorsal fin, and are scaleless. Pāoʻo spend much of their time resting or feeding on the bottom, in search of detritus or algae. Females lay eggs, which they cement into small nooks or under ledges; the male guards the cluster until the fry emerge. The little ones take to the sea for a time, eventually returning to the pools.
In 1997, researchers on the island of Kaua'i uncovered the fossilized seeds of this beautiful tree, predating man's arrival there. Previously thought to have arrived here first with Polynesian settlers, the kou tree is now considered a Hawaiian native. It is also found throughout the Pacific, and as far away as East Africa, its buoyant seeds perhaps helping to make it an international traveler. It's loved wherever it grows, its broad canopy providing shade, its wood easily carved, and its magnificent orange flower pleasing to the eye. Kou's tolerance of wind and light salt spray makes it a good choice for windbreaks and coastal landscapes. It prefers the bright sun and warmth of the leeward coasts and lower elevation forests but does just fine in urban settings, making our parking lots and shopping malls a bit more colorful. It's a significant cultural tree, often planted near the home to provide relief from the sun. It's nearly heart-shaped leaves (species name: subcordata) are wonderfully glossy and were used to make dyes for kapa and for dying fishing lines to make them less visible, as well as used in combination with other plants in traditional medicines. The unscented flowers were strung into lei. Bowls, utensils, figurines and more were carved from kou. Throughout its range it is in decline due to over-harvesting for the wood, and because of the kou leaf worm (Ethmia nigroapicella), introduced here in the late 1800's, which can defoliate trees. So if you have a suitably-sized garden, have a heart, and consider planting this treasure trove of a tree.
Abundant. What a refreshing word to use to describe one of Hawaii's endemic critters. This is the saddle wrasse, hinalea lau-wili, Thalassoma duperrey, one of the most common reef fish found here. And while wrasses can be tricky to i.d. due to the color changes they go through from juvenile to adult, the adult saddle wrasse design is pretty straightforward. The generic epithet, Thalassoma, comes from the Greek thalassa: the sea, and soma: body; and indeed, the green and blue body is the color of the sea, which would make it tough to spot if it weren't for that blazing red-orange saddle. Another thing to look for is the way they swim: wrasses beat their pectoral fins up and down like wings, rarely using their tail fins unless a quick get-away is in order.
As juveniles they sport brown, black, and white snout to tail stripes, but will begin the color change when they are around two and a half inches. As adults, they typically get to be around six to eight inches, but can get larger, with the biggest coming in at around eleven inches. They inhabit rubbly areas, lagoons, and reefs, where they spend their days in search of crustaceans and other invertebrates, as well as fish eggs and limu. It has been reported that they will engage in cleaning behavior, plucking ectoparasites off of other fish for a quick meal. It is believed they all begin life as females, with some of them going through sex reversal, becoming males. The largest are known as supermales, and show a white streak behind the orange saddle. At night, saddle wrasses may literally bury their heads in the sand, snuggling in for a good night's sleep.