Never a dull moment for tropical plant lovers on the Island of Kauai...


Red Ginger


Latin Name: Alpinia Purpurata

Family: Ginger (Zingiberaceae)

Location: Dollar Car Rental in Lihue

Native to: New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Solomon Islands, Bismark Archipelago and Bougainville

Fun Facts: Ornamental ginger is not edible like the related culinary ginger roots. Much more beautiful than in the photo, it has several varieties including "jungle king" (red), "jungle queen" (pink), hot pink, purest white, and so on. It spreads like a weed once established and was brought to Hawaii at least by 1928. It is similar to the heliconias in that they have these colorful bracts that look like flowers, but the actual flowers are white and peek out of the bracts.


Latin Name: Artocarpus altilis

Family: Fig (Moraceae)

Location: Bali Hai Wyndham Resort in Princeville

Native to: Northwestern New Guinea

Fun Facts: My not calling this "native" to Polynesia might not really be fair since they brought it from New Guinea about 3,500 years ago. An important staple food to replace rice at the time, it was also important to the ancient Mayans. When cooked, it's said to taste like freshly baked bread or potatoes. It has a lot of starch and water content. Sometimes it is combined with poi, another staple Hawaiian starch from the tarot plant. Its milky sap has also been used in boat calking. Looking at the fruit, one can easily spot its similarity to Jackfruit, both with a yellow, round, spiny exterior. You can easily note from their Latin names that they are both from the genus Artocarpus. The leaves are huge and deeply lobed, uniquely riveting in ornate design. It strikes me that the diverse members of the fig family often have very perfect, symmetrical, and uniform leaves.

Tahitian Gardenia

Latin Name: Gardenia taitensis

Family: Citrus/Coffee (Rubiaceae)

Location: Commercial Hanalei

Native to: Melanesia and French Polynesia

Fun Facts: This plant can grow to 4 meters tall. I love the pinwheel shape of this flower, similar to plumerias, and is also used in leis and in perfumes. Tahitian Gardenia is quite fragrant and a bark infusion is dripped into the nose, eyes and mouth for treating "ghost sickness"--an illness related to grief and loss of a loved one. Monoi Tiare Tahiti is the perfume oil made by infusing the blossom in coconut oil. Though not native to Hawaii, it was likely brought long ago by indigenous people.


Latin Name: Sanchezia parvibracteata

Family: Acanthus (Acanthaceae)

Location: Happy Talk (Resort/Bar/Restaurant) in Princeville

Native to: Tropical South and Central America

Fun Facts: The main Sanchezia species in Hawaii are P. parvibracteata and P. speciosa. The second one has bigger flowers and well, they are hard to tell apart, but from what I could find, this looks like the right species.  The name "parvi-" means small and "bracteata" refers to those little bright red bracts, out of which the yellow tubular flowers are coming.  A nice attraction for hummingbirds I'd wager, as they like those tube-shaped flowers.

Autograph Tree

Latin Name: Clusea Rosea

Family: Mangosteen (Cluceaceae)

Location: Costco Parking in Lihue

Native to: Carribean Islands

Fun Facts: The name, Autograph Tree, comes from the way you can easily leave notes by writing on the tops of the leaves that remain legible. The white flowers are quite pretty and circular, with fused parts forming a kind of button in the middle. A nice enough appearing tree, it is actually a hemiepiphyte or parasitic growth patter, wherein it attaches to a host plant then sends down roots to strangle it. In Sri Lanka, it is taking over and threatening the natural plants. The fruit are poisonous, but seeds are eaten after the fruit splits open in a remarkable star or flower shaped pattern (see below). The seeds are dispersed by birds to new victims – I mean host-plants. Other names include pitch apple and Scotch attorney, and Clusia major.

Pothos Plant

Latin Name: Epipremnum aureum

Family: Arum (Araceae)

Location: Kalalau Trail, Na Pali Coast

Native to: French Polynesia

Fun Facts: This plant is often misidentified as "Philodendron," but this is understandable – they are from the same family and there are some Philodendrons, of the close to 489 species known, that resemble this plant.  The houseplant, which you have likely seen in temperate regions, is a heart-shaped leafy vine that has a soft fleshy appearance with yellow splotchy stripes. This plant has nowhere near the length of leaf (up to 39 inches) in the wild, where it invades and takes over forests. It is nearly impossible to get rid of and they often call it "devils ivy."  There are Philodendrons that would be hard, in some cases, to tell apart.  They seem to be more leathery, more uniform, and more likely to have subterranean roots (Pothos are aerial adhering to trees and similar substrates).  The Pothos plant is also called Money plant.  Who says money doesn't grow on trees?


Latin Name: Cocos nucifera

Family: Palm (Arecaceae)

Location: Poipu Beach

Native to: Controversial (Maybe aroud India or the Americas)

Fun Facts: There are two forms of coconut, a more angular thick husk and a more spherical thin husk but they're the apart of the same species. Very widespread in the tropics, likely due to their salt tolerance, they are all over the beaches. Coconuts do not grow in California as it is too dry and too cold. There was one growing on the side of a public building on the PCH in Newport Beach. It was said the microclimate there was just right so it could maintain, though not flourish. It got to be about 3-5 feet tall and had some nice looking leaves, was quite the internet celebrity, but finally died last year, RIP, 1984-2015. A single tree can yield up to 75 coconuts in a season, but usually they're closer to 30. They grow up to 30 meters tall and are easy to spot with long leaves (4-6 meters) that are straight but slightly bent at the tips and the proximal ends. They also have a prominent yellow rachis, no crownshaft, and often curving trunks.

Rubber Vine

Latin Name: Cryptostegia grandiflora

Family: Dogbane (Apocynaceae)

Location: Alii Kai Apts, Princeville

Native to: Madagascar

Fun Facts: Sometimes mistaken for another flower called Purple Allamanda, the leaves on the Rubber Vine are quite different on Kauai, folded in a taco-shape and similar to the darker leaves of the rubber tree (Ficus Elastica). The rubber tree is a beautiful huge shade tree, also seen in the area. Apocynaceae gets its name from a stateside weed, Dogbane, because it is poisonous to dogs. This one is also poisonous – 10 grams can kill a full sized horse in six days. It's become quite the invader, so much so, in places they are importing it's natural pathogen (Rubber vine rust) to help control it. It is overgrowing and killing trees by blocking out light and is a problem in Sri Lanka and Australia. The untwisting flower screw-like buds are quite beautiful, typical for this family, like plumerias, and our next specimen...

Sea Mango

Latin Name: Cerbera manghas

Family: Dogbane (Apocynaceae)

Location: Private Residence on Anini Beach

Native to: From the Seychelle Islands to French Polynesia

Fun Facts:Sea Mango plants are small and ornamental, growing up to 39 ft tall. One can see the similarities with plumerias, the mango-shaped fruit that are also nicknamed "suicide apples" in Hawaii. The sap has even been used as a poison for animal hunting. The powerfully poisonous glycoside is called cerberin. Cerberus is the hell dog from Greek mythology. Additionally, the seeds were used in sentence rituals to poison kings and queens.


Chicken Gizzard Plant

Latin Name: Iresine herbstii

Family: Amaranth (Amaranthaceae)

Location: Terrace near Sea-Cliff Apartments in Princeville

Native to: Brazil

Fun Facts: Also called Formosa Bloodleaf.  Flowers are hairy or wooly (covered with trichomes), which is where the genus gets its name.  Iresine is derived from the Greek -erios, meaning wooly.


Sea Grape

Latin Name: Coccoloba uvifera

Family: Knotweed (Polygonaceae)

Location: Poipu Beach

Native to: Tropical America and the Caribbean

Fun Facts: Beatiful plant that is easy to spot with its light colored bark and round leaves.  The distinctive hanging racemes of fruit that will swell up to grapes that are edible and can be made into wine or vinegar.  They can also be cooked into jellies or jams!


Hawaiian Raspberry

Latin name: Rubus hawaiensis

Family: Rose (Rosaceae)

Location: Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast

Native to: Hawaiian Islands

Fun Facts: They are edible but more sour and bitter than typical raspberries we are used to, so not often eaten.  They can one of the dominant understory species in forests.  They lack prickles for the most part but when the plant is young they still carry small ones.  Raspberries are an example of an aggregate fruit, where each berry-let is one of an aggregate of multiple carpels (ovaries) within the same flower.  Compare this to pineapple, which is a 'multiple' fruit, the product of multiple flowers and they ovaries/fruit adhering to each other.  It appears that the fruitlet/carpels in the hawaiian version are more numerous.


Beach Morning Glory/ Pohuehue

Latin Name: Ipomea pes-caprae

Family: Morning glory (Convulvulaceae)

Location: Tunnels Beach

Native to: Coastal tropics

Fun Facts: The flower is round and purple with a star shaped, pleated design like other morning glory plants.  Other names include Bayhop, and Goat's Foot, which is what the latin pes-caprae.  The flowers are usually pink or purple but can be a variety of colors.  Salt tolerance lets it's seeds be carried about by the water and the plant to thrive in it's conquest of all tropical shores.  It can be as long as 100 feet, sometime covering large swaths of white sand.  It has been used in making cordage.   If you can guess why it is called goat's foot, your reward will be the wonderment of discovery.

Palm Grass

Latin Name: Setaria palmifolia

Family: Grass (Poaceae)

Location: Roadside forest floor near Ke'e Beach

Native to: Temperate and tropical Asia

Fun Facts: This invader really looks like some palms might look before their trunks push up out of the ground and their leaves become more divided.  They bloom in an arcing whispy tuft, giving them away as a grass.  Additionally, they spread by knotty rhizomes.  It is used as a crop in PNG (Papua New Guinea) as its grain can be eaten as a rice substitute.


Buddha Belly Plant

Latin Name: Jatropha podagrica

Family: Spurge (Euphorbiaceae)

Location: Wyndham Bali Hai Resort, Princeville

Native to: Tropical Americas

Fun Facts: The "buddha belly" of "gout plant", or "gouty nettlespurge" is concealed by a cluster of bromeliads, which are the pineapple-like leaves (pineapple is a bromeliad) in this location.  It has a rounded base that looks like a buddha belly.  The clusters of flowers are red and "coral-like" and born year-round.  All of this plant is poisonous.  It contains a toxin called curcin.


Cigar Flower

Latin Name: Cuphea ignea

Family: Loosestrife (:Lythraceae)

Location: Commercial Hannalei (outside Bubba's Burgers)

Native to:  Mexico and the West Indies

Fun Facts:  Also called Mexican Cigar Plant, and Firecracker plant, it is a beautiful and common ornamental on Kauai with green eliptical leaves. Ignea is latin for 'fire'.


Umbrella Palm

Latin Name: Cyperus involucratis

Family: Sedge (Cyperaceae)

Location: Happy Talk in Princeville

Native to: Madagascar

Fun facts: To differentiate some of the groups from Poales, the Grass order, there is a saying: "Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have nodes from their tips to the ground". You will note that where the leaves meet the stem it maintains a kind of trangular edge to its structure, as above.  It likes boggy places and forms bunches of feathery grass-like flowers on its tops.


Elephant Ear Plant

 Latin Name: Colocasia esculenta

Family: Arum (Araceae)

Location: Happy Talk in Princeville

Native to: Southeast Asia or Unknown

Fun Facts: Taro, or Kalo (to the Hawaiians) has been cultivated as a food crop in civilizations in the Equatorial regions around the globe.  The ancient Romans consumed it as a starchy staple much like potatoes and it is important to Hawaiian culture and cuisine.  Looking down at the Hanalei Valley from Princeville, one can see how these plants (smaller than the one above) are grown in paddies with the ears sticking up above the water, the roots submerged.  Processing of the hard taro root to make the starchy poi is a tough process, pun intended.  There are somewhere around 200 different varieties of Colocasia drawn mainly from the same species with variable appearance and sizes.


Lobster Tail Heliconia

Latin Name: Heliconia rostrata

Family: Heliconia (Heliconiaceae)

Location: Small Public Picnic area in Princeville

Native to: Northern South America and Costa Rica

Fun Facts: It is the national flower of Bolivia (along with the Kantuta flower).  With their bright coloration and banana-like leaves, it is also known as False Bird of paradise.

Tree Heliotrope

Latin Name: Heliotropium fortheriana

Family: Borage (Boraginaceae)

Location: Anini Beach

Native to: Tropical Asia (from Southern China into Micronesia)

Fun Facts: I like the sound of the old scientific name, Tournifortia argentea much better I must confess, but it has been renamed, probably to classify it more accurately.  Looking closely at the picture above, the inflorescences resemble swarms of writhing worms.  Heliotropes have groups of flowers (inflorescences) that resemble fiddleheads, which unravel the way the young branches of a fern do.  The botanical term for this type of inflorescence is a "scorpioid cyme" which is apt given the uneven spiral fashion a scorpion's tale makes.  The senescent leaves have been used medicinally to remove a certain kind of toxin, ciguatoxin, involved in fish poisoning.  The active agent involved is called rosmarinic acid, found to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial properties.  Let's take a closer look at those inflorescences:

Stay tuned for more spell-binding super-plants in the Fantastic Flora of Kauai, Part 3


1.Wikipedia website.

2.Palmpedia site.

3. University of Hawaii Native Plants website.












Posted by Anne Eliason on
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