Hawai'i's Plant Life | Maui Ocean Center

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Why Hawaiian Plants and Flowers Are So Unique

Hawaiian plants are incredibly unique because of the way they had to evolve and adapt to the specific conditions of the islands. Hawaiian plants are considered unique for several reasons:

#1: Geographic Isolation: The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most isolated landmasses on Earth. This isolation allowed for the evolution of unique plant species that could adapt to the specific environmental conditions of the islands.

#2 Volcanic Origins: The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic activity, with the oldest islands being millions of years old. As new islands formed through volcanic eruptions, they provided opportunities for plant colonization. Over time, different plant species arrived, adapted, and diversified, resulting in a high level of endemism (species found nowhere else).

#3  Diverse Microclimates: Despite being relatively small, the Hawaiian Islands exhibit a wide range of microclimates due to variations in elevation, exposure to trade winds, and rainfall patterns. These microclimates support a variety of habitats, including rainforests, dry forests, shrublands, bogs, and coastal dunes. The diverse habitats have led to the evolution of numerous specialized plant species.

#4 Evolutionary Pressure: With limited space and resources available, Hawaiian plants have undergone many changes, where a single ancestral species gives rise to multiple descendant species that occupy different ecological niches. This process has led to the development of unique plant forms, growth habits, and reproductive strategies.

#5 Lack of Herbivores: Before human arrival, the Hawaiian Islands had no native land mammals, and there were limited herbivorous insects and birds. This absence of large herbivores and plant-eating predators allowed plants to evolve without the same level of herbivory pressures found in other ecosystems. As a result, some Hawaiian plants have lost their physical defenses, such as thorns or tough leaves, and have instead developed vibrant flowers and fragrances to attract pollinators.

#6 Human Impact: While the isolation and unique environmental conditions contributed to the development of distinctive plant species in Hawai’i, human activities have also influenced the plant diversity. Introduction of non-native plant species, habitat destruction, and climate change pose significant threats to the native Hawaiian flora.

How Many Plants Are Native To Hawai'i?

Many plant species are found exclusively in the Hawaiian Islands and nowhere else in the world.  It is estimated that there are around 1,200 native flowering plant species in Hawai’i. This includes various types of trees, shrubs, herbs, and ferns.


It’s important to note that this number represents native plant species, excluding non-native or introduced plants that have been brought to the islands by humans.

Discover our Hawaiian Plants

‘Ūlei (Hawaiian Hawthorne, Hawaiian Rose)

This common species does best in dry and sunny conditions. Too much rainfall hinders its ability to flower. Young flexible...

Mai‘a (Banana)

There are over 140 varieties of banana found in Hawaiʻi. In ancient Hawaiʻi, it was kapu (forbidden) for women to...

Kalo (Taro)

Kalo was by far the most important plant to early Hawaiians. Kalo was the staple food through the main Hawaiian...

‘Ape (Elephant’s Ear, False Kalo)

‘Ape is so closely related to Kalo, and some people refer to it as “Giant Kalo.” The distinguishing feature between...

‘Awapuhi (Shampoo Ginger)

‘Awapuhi is characterized by tall, cane-like stems that can reach heights of up to six feet. The plant produces cone-shaped...


‘A‘ali‘i is a shrub or a small tree that averages between six to twelve feet tall, but can reach up...


‘Alahe‘e can grow as a shrub or a small tree, which can reach heights from six to thirty feet tall,...

‘Ākia (False Ohelo)

‘Ākia is a sprawling / crawling shrub that grows up to five feet tall. Normally, it gets to three feet...

Kī (Ti leaf)

Kī is a plant frequently used in landscaping, and a common sight around Hawaiʻi. Prior to western contact, only green...