Talking ‘Canoe Plants,’ Native Flowers at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai

“The Polynesian voyages are probably the most epic journeys ever undertaken by man,” says Mike DeMotta, the assistant director of horticulture at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. We’re in Kauai, and he says this by way of introducing Ryan and I to the two dozen or so “canoe plants” brought to Hawaii — on 100-foot-long double-hull canoes — over 1,000 years ago.

“As experienced travelers,” Mike says, “they knew they couldn’t depend on what they would find on any island they’d get to, so they always brought their own stuff. Everything they brought for the most part originates in Southeast Asia somewhere.”

Ko (Saccharum officinarum)

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is a canoe plant that eventually became an economic juggernaut. Hawaii was once dominated by sugar plantations.

Ko (Saccharum officinarum)

“Their own stuff” included food and medicine in the form of bananas, coconuts, taro, sugarcane and ginger — flora so closely tied to Hawaiian culture that many people assume they’re native.

Guided by the stars and “how the ocean reacted to landmasses, they were able to find islands in the distance,” Mike says. That’s how the master seafarers of Polynesia explored approximately 16 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean: from New Zealand in the southwest to Hawaii in the north, to Easter Island in the southeast — also known as the Polynesian Triangle. The original Hawaiians are believed to have sailed there from the Marquesas Islands some 2,000 miles away.

Perhaps in as little as 30 days!


Leaving one paradise to find another, and with a “botanical tool kit” to boot. We think we like this idea, but also wonder…why?

“Why do people go anywhere?” says Mike. “Overpopulation and political, religious differences. The Marquesas Islands are beautiful, but they’re very small and mountainous. Every time the population grew, it was like, ‘Leave or die.’ ”

Needless to say, our trip to the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai last December was an enlightening one, rich in both hort and history. We met Mike at the Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden in the Lawai Valley on the south shore, where he showed us the plants of ancient Hawaii, plus muggy tangles of monsteras, palms and philodendrons that ushered us right up to a waterfall.

And then there’s the garden’s collection of native Hawaiian plants, which are particularly close to Mike’s heart — from rugged lobelias that grow out of rocks to a hibiscus family member known for draping cliffs with radiant yellow flowers.

Explore these plants — many of which came to Kauai either by “wind, wing or wave” — with us, below!


Mike DeMotta, Assistant Director, Living Collections & Horticulture, at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai.

Paper mulberry or Broussonetia papyrifera

The inner bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) was, and still is, used to make tapa cloth.

A millennium ago, the migrating Polynesians “picked up plants that were very useful,” Mike says. “Coconuts, for example: that was their main source for water, which was in its own self-contained sterile container. You could eat the meat, use the shells for tools.”

About the bananas, Mike says, “The varieties that we grow today are probably nothing like what they arrived with.” Because banana plants are monocarpic, flowering and fruiting once before dying, the ancient Hawaiians used the entire plant while cooking the fruits in an imu, or underground oven. “The leaves are used as a covering, [and] the stump is full of water, so you put the crushed stump in, and it causes it to steam.”

(The garden’s own imu gets fired up for company potlucks.)


During their long voyages, the ancient Hawaiians used coconuts for water, food and tools.


Bananas were brought to Hawaii by Polynesian seafarers over 1,000 years ago.

And then there’s the taro, an important staple food believed to be the elder brother of the Hawaiians. Taro, Mike says, is “eaten by all Polynesians except probably New Zealanders, the Maori, because it’s too cold down there.”

The starchy plant developed a particular importance with the Hawaiians; to survive their voyages, “the Hawaiians would mash the taro [bulb] into a mash called poi, which keeps for longer than [raw or cooked] taro will,” Mike explains. “By changing the consistency to something like a mashed potato, it’s edible and maintains nutritional value for weeks and weeks. They depended on it to sustain them on these long journeys in the South Pacific.”

Taro (Colocasia esculenta)

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is a staple food in Hawaiian culture. With the consistency of a “sticky potato,” its bulbs can be mashed into poi, a nutritious food that lasts for weeks.

Taro (Colocasia esculenta)

Taro is traditionally considered “the big brother of the Hawaiians.” The plant can grow in ponds and on dry (but well irrigated) land.

Ancient tradition dictates that one should not turn one’s back to the taro, and that it should only be planted and harvested during certain phases of the moon.

Other canoe plants include sweet potato (sourced by the ancient Polynesians, amazingly, from South America somehow), kukui (used for fuel, food and construction), breadfruit, awapuhi ginger (which provided medicine, shampoo and flavoring), noni fruit, kava (roots can be brewed into a sedative drink), ti (used for medicine, food packaging, even raincoats) and gourds for decoration and containers. Sources place the total number between 24 and 30 plants in total.

Olena or turmeric(Curcuma longa) used for making curry powder.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is another canoe plant, used for medicine and making curry powder.

Ipu (Lagenaria siceraria Cucurbitaceae)

The ipu gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) is a cucurbit used by the ancient Hawaiians as containers and for decoration.

Noni tree.

When my arms became an all-you-can-eat buffet for mosquitos, we grabbed another canoe plant, the noni fruit, for some sweet skin relief.



In 2012, a hale (traditional hut, pronounced ha-ley) was erected by members of the staff, local civic clubs and the Navy. The materials were modern, but the notching and lashings were built “based on the old way,” Mike says.



NTBG is a non-profit that relies on the support of plant lovers, and is dedicated to discovering, saving, and studying the world’s tropical plants, and to sharing these breakthroughs with the public. Its other locations include Limahuli Garden on Kauai’s north shore, Kahanu Garden on Maui, and the Kampong in Coconut Grove, Florida. That’s 2,000 acres of gardens and preserves in total!

In addition to our canoe plant exploration, we took a jaunt into the wildly tropical waterfall area of NTGB’s Allerton Garden…


On the right, we pass a papaya tree en route to the waterfall.


In a flame-thrower palm (great name right? Also, Chambeyronia macrocarpa), the new growth is red. This feature likely evolved as a way to deter predators, including the rainforest elephants of New Caledonia, from eating young leaves.


MacArthur and Chinese fan palms also lead the way to the waterfall.




Ixora casei, from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia.

The red-flowering hedge? That’s an ever-blooming ixora (Ixora casei, aka flame of the woods) from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. A member of the Rubiaceae family and closely related to gardenias and coffee plants, its branches are used in traditional dances.

Monstera deliciosa

Pinwheel-shaped licuala palms burst out from a thicket of highly holey monstera leaves.

Monstera deliciosa

More monstera!

At his own house on the west side, Mike grows only native plants; his expertise in the area was what originally brought NTBG to his door. We gotta say, his passion is contagious.

“People think native plants don’t look nice or they’re hard to grow,” Mike says. “It’s unfounded because they’re native, they evolved here. You have to till, you have to make the soil better. You can’t put a native plant in the middle of a big red-dirt former sugarcane field and expect it to thrive. You have to create the community of plants it’s supposed to be in — then they thrive.”


As a veteran native plant grower, Mike has been working his magic in the McBryde Garden’s indigenous collection. The nehe (Melanthera integrifolia), is so named because of the papery sound it makes while rustling in the breeze. It’s a member of Asteraceae, the daisy family.

Melanthera integrifolia, nehe

Melanthera integrifolia, nehe

Up close with the nehe flower. Many native plants are threatened or near extinction due to encroachment by invasive species and destruction by introduced predators like rats, slugs and feral pigs.


This Niihau lobelia, sourced from Kauai’s NaPali coast, grows on steep, dry cliffs, out of rocks even, thanks to fibrous roots that sip on subterranean moisture. It also grows in west Oahu and on Niihau, the famed Forbidden Island.

Schiedea verticillata

The Nihoa carnation (Schiedea verticillata) is endemic, or native exclusively, to the rocky valleys of Nihoa, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Euphorbia haeleeleana

The Kauai spurge (Euphorbia haeleeleana) is a rare find, now that it’s a favorite snack of blacktail deer.

Sida fallax, or 'ilima

The ‘ilima plant (Sida fallax) is a ground cover from the hibiscus family. It’s found all over the Pacific, and is an important food source for the solitary yellow-face bee.

'Ilima flower. (Sida fallax)

An ‘ilima flower. The plant can be seen sprawled across coastal cliffs.


Check out another gem from the Rubiaceae family: the forest gardenia (Gardenia brighamii). This modest tree with fragrant flowers is found only in Hawaii. It’s also critically endangered.

Native Hawaiian hibiscus

The koki’o hibiscus is a Hawaiian native.




Another cute koki’o.

With just a few minutes left until closing time, Ryan and I went deeper into McBryde Garden, which, in addition to indigenous species, features plants from all over the tropics.


Overlooking the McBryde Garden.




Lodoicea maldivica, double coconut

In the McBryde garden, a coco de mer tree (Lodoicea maldivica, endemic to the Seychelles) is hugged by a copperleaf hedge. This notoriously slow-growing palm produces just one new leaf a year! In its current position it also requires constant mulching.


We ventured further into the garden, where we were dwarfed by this monkey pod (Albizia saman) tree.


Pritchardia lowreyana

The loulu palm (Pritchardia lowreyana). Prichardia is the only genus of palm native to the Hawaiian islands.


“In the field, when you come across a Pritchardia that occurs naturally in the forest, it’s a big deal, because they’re so few and far between,” Mike says.


Wild orchids clamber up a trunk.

Shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet)

Shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet).

Shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet)

Schefflera arboricola 'Renate'

Schefflera arboricola ‘Renate’ flings itself toward the falls.

Schefflera arboricola 'Renate'

Schefflera arboricola ‘Renate.’


Red ginger (Alpinia purpurata) is used in cut arrangements (the flowers can last weeks) and in leis.

Inocarpus fagifer, Tahitian chustnut, Polynesian chestnut

Catching some shade under a Tahitian chestnut (Inocarpus fagifer) tree.

Inocarpus fagifer, Tahitian chustnut, Polynesian chestnut

Astrocaryum standleyanum, Ecuador

A black palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum) from Ecuador.

Akee (Blighia sapida), a close relative to the lychee, headlines Jamaica's national dish, ackee and saltfish.

Akee (Blighia sapida), a close relative to the lychee, headlines Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish.

Lawsonia inermis

A henna tree (Lawsonia inermis) is used to make the cosmetic dye of the same name.

Parkia timoriana, tree bean

A delightfully oddball stem from a tree bean (Parkia timoriana), sourced from Kupang in Indonesia.

Fagraea ksid

The Fagraea ksid is native to Palau.