Creating an Oasis for the Original Hawaiians

On Kauai, an enlightened landowner is transforming her property into a native plant haven while also teaching her neighbors about the benefits of cultivating indigenous species

  • Aug 01, 2007
PATRICIA ROUEN knew little about Hawaii’s native plants when she moved from California to the island of Kauai seven years ago. She built a home on a three and a half acre patch of land on the island’s north shore that once was part of a sugar plantation. Perhaps because of the parcel’s rugged topography, the former landowners never planted crops on it and Rouen discovered much of it was covered with uluhe and other endemic and indigenous ferns and trees.

While working one day under a blossoming native ohia lehua tree, she noticed an unusual yellow bird. “I ran inside and got my bird book, and sure enough, it was an amakihi,” she says, referring to a rare species usually seen only in undisturbed forests at higher elevations. “Knowing that because I have native plants these endangered birds would come here was a thrill for me.”

The experience had a profound effect on Rouen. She has since converted her land into a native species oasis by removing invasive, nonnative vegetation and replacing it with more than 40 indigenous types of plants. In the process, she became a self-taught expert on the state’s flora, who helped found a local native plant society that organizes activities to help educate other residents of Kauai about the benefits of gardening with Hawaiian species. Her property is officially approved by NWF as a Certified Wildlife Habitat™ site.

“She is one of those enlightened property owners who is determined to do the right thing,” says Betsy Gagne, executive secretary of Hawaii’s Department of Lands and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry. “She has not only done an outstanding job on her own property, she also has helped raise awareness of native species on a larger scale.”

Located more than 2,000 miles from the closest continent, the Hawaiian archipelago is the most remote island chain in the world. Eighty-nine percent of its 1,000 or so native flowering species grow nowhere else on Earth. Unfortunately, Hawaii also has more endangered plant species than any other state—273, about half the nation’s total—and Kauai has more listed species than any other island in the chain. Introduced, nonnative vegetation has so completely overtaken the islands’ terrain that most residents and tourists seldom see native plant life.

Hawaii’s endangered species, says Chipper Wichman, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, “are facing a life-and-death struggle that few of our visitors realize when they come here because it’s so beautiful and green.” In many cases, he notes, the islands’ plants “are losing that struggle. Time is truly of the essence.”

Rouen felt that sense of urgency soon after buying her property. “As I began to educate myself about what plants would have been here before the ‘silent invasion’ of introduced species,” she says, “I was stunned to learn that Hawaii is the nation’s extinction capital.” She set out to transform her land into a place where native species could flourish.

She began by getting rid of introduced grasses, and she hired help to clear invasive guava trees. To chip those trees to mulch her paths, she used grant money from the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program—a federal program that provides assistance to people who want to improve habitat on private land. She selected the native plants to cultivate that are best suited to the microclimate where she lives, and found local sources for some of the more common species. But when she tried to obtain rarer varieties, she ran into her first major roadblock: At the time, state law prohibited individuals from possessing federally listed species.

Serendipitously, in 2001, Rouen was asked to help organize a local native plant propagation workshop. Nearly 100 landscapers, conservationists and native plant lovers attended the event. It led to the formation of the Kauai Native Plant Society. It also began a dialogue between government agencies and the public to make rare plant material more easily available. Today many island nurseries sell native plants, and more and more public works projects and resorts include natives in their landscapes. The nurseries secure seeds and plants for propagation from state forestry agents or the Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu.

In 2002, Michelle Clark, a fellow Hawaiian native plant lover and soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, visited the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) in Washington, D.C. She discovered that the flora of Hawaii were underrepresented. She asked the facility’s curators if they would be interested in acquiring Hawaiian plants. “To our surprise and delight, they issued us an invitation to partner with them in creating a special three-month exhibition,” says Rouen, who with Clark and plant enthusiast Anne O’Malley spearheaded a project titled “Our Nation’s Crown Jewels.” It proved so successful with visitors that authorities later dedicated an entire room at the facility for a permanent exhibition of imperiled plants from the Aloha State. Today, Rouen continues to improve the habitat on her land. “I use a minimal amount of organic fertilizers and I don’t water,” she says. “This isn’t a botanic garden; it’s a restoration so things must fend for themselves.”

Much of her knowledge of Hawaiian plants has come through trial and error. She learned, for example, that maile, the ancient Hawaiian lei plant, needs good drainage, shade and a support to climb. After planting 75 koa trees, she discovered that they need to be inoculated with a live bacterial rhizobia that attaches itself to their roots to absorb the right nutrients from the ground. Now she secures koa from a local grower who inoculates the seed. Her land also shelters several of the state’s endangered plants, including the delicate blossoming Clay’s hibiscus. Only four individuals of this species remain in the wild.

“Native plants are part of the living Hawaiian culture and tradition,” says Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, an NWF affiliate. “Growing them not only helps perpetuate that culture, it also helps support our native forest birds, of which many are endangered.”

Increasingly, Rouen’s property is looking more and more like the land the Polynesians saw when they first arrived in Hawaii. “It’s fascinating to me that these plants got here by the three Ws—wings, water and wind,” she says. “And because they were isolated for the millennia, they evolved to be so unique. These plants are the original Hawaiians and they deserve a place in our modern world.”

Minnesota journalist Margaret Haapoja visited Rouen’s garden on Kauai earlier this year.

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