There was a time in Hawaii when nature stretched continuously from Mauka to Makai. This pristine natural beauty has largely disappeared in our densely populated urban areas today – a harsh reality that has led some to view urban areas as a lost cause, separate from highland forests and other nature reserves.
The human impact on the forest has been extreme: up to 95% of Hawaii’s dry forest has been destroyed, and only 40% of our Mesian forest has been preserved.
But nature is important in our urban areas. As a Hawaiian official Forest Action Plan notes: “The ecosystems of our islands are more dramatically and intricately interconnected than those on continents. Because of these close connections, it is necessary to integrate urban forest issues into the landscape and island-wide management efforts. “
Last year we at the Hawaii Forest Institute, with the help of the Kaulunani Urban and Community Forestry Program of the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife, launched the project “Go Native: Growing a Native Hawaii Urban Forest” to cultivate native Hawaiian and Polynesian imports Canoe plants.
The goal of this long-term effort is to create a series of kipuka, or micro-forests, within the urban and suburban core. Once we’ve convinced enough homeowners, renters, businesses, and landscape architects to use more native Hawaiian and canoe plants in their landscaping, these native gardens can collectively become a man-made substitute for the natural forests that once abounded, especially in Arid areas and mesic areas.
We can create a native Hawaiian urban forest network within a generation.
The Hawaiian Native American urban forest network would provide innumerable benefits to the Hawaiian people and the countryside: a sanctuary for native animals; Wildlife corridors for native invertebrates, birds and bats; the maintenance of genetic variation within plant and animal species; strengthening cultural and spiritual links with the past.
The creation of the native Hawaiian urban forest network could also help increase the redundancy, representation and resilience of existing natural forests. If we build a native Hawaiian urban forest network of sufficient size and density, native birds and insects may even be able to expand their current ranges.
Growing native plants not only benefits wildlife, forests and the environment as a whole, it also uses less water, fewer fertilizers and pesticides, and reduces air pollution. According to Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst, author of Growing Native Hawaiian Plants: A How-To Guide for the Gardener, “Many natives, especially those native to coastal and dry forest areas, will help achieve Hawaii’s goal of wasteful irrigation practices (xeriphite or drought tolerant landscaping). “
Contrary to popular belief, there are native Hawaiian plants that are very hardy and can survive in harsh conditions. They can play a role when climate change affects the state.
We know where we want to go, but the way to get there is not always clear and there will be bumps. One major challenge we discovered is the existing landscaping aesthetic. Many homeowners and businesses seem to prefer a well-manicured, highly controlled landscape. You can pay landscape architects to design and install “instant” landscaping that is relatively timed. In contrast, creating a series of native Hawaiian kipuka really requires a certain amount of rewilding.
Native Hawaiian gardens, like the garden planted and managed by local landscape architect Rick Quinn near Shidler College of Business on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus, have evolved over time with conditions in the garden – like tree shade and soil biota – have changed, and some plants have flowered while others have died.
The homeowner who plants a native Hawaiian garden needs to be open to change and let ecological succession play its part. In this sense, gardening becomes more of a journey of experimentation and discovery than a one-off installation.
At the same time, we’ve seen examples of flowering gardens that use native Hawaiian plants, are well-maintained, and don’t change much over time. There is a continuum from tightly controlled to wild, and where you go on the continuum depends to some extent on personal taste and plant selection.
The discussion about garden aesthetics may seem esoteric to some, but it has economic implications. Numerous experts we’ve spoken to have found that the version of tropical or subtropical landscaping presented to tourists is often a generic one. A tourist can travel around the world and see the same man-made version of “tropical paradise” that uses non-native plants such as monstera.
There is nothing unique or special about this homogenized version of nature. We believe that at a time when Hawaii is looking for a new model of tourism – and tourists are looking for authentic experiences – native Hawaiian and canoe plants play an important role.
While Hawaiian landscaping doesn’t look like the imaginary image of a tropical paradise, it is authentic and appropriate for the location. Our native flora and fauna can play an important role in making Hawaii a truly unique travel destination.
We now create a a series of videos and a reference manual. Designed for a lay audience, the videos guide you through the stages of creating or transforming a landscape into native plants and canoe plants.
The guide, which we tentatively refer to as the #GoNativeHawaii Growing Guide, will enable gardeners, landscape architects, and others to identify the various native plants that are best suited for their climate zone, personal tastes, gardening or landscape experience, and other factors . The guide allows users to look up their growing zone to find recommended combinations of plants to grow that will fit in the zone and are more likely to thrive. It also recommends plants based on other considerations such as the type of space and landscape function, and it provides up-to-date sample garden plans with combinations of plants, architectural drawings, etc. – with a detailed scheme instead of a simple list of ingredients.
Both give clear orientation and take the guesswork out of planning and realizing a local urban landscape.
Delving into the details, we found that this project requires compromises. Should we remain strictly true to the original natural history of the respective area or include some plants that can only survive through human intervention (for example through regular watering and fertilization)?
Should we include plants that are only endemic to one island or only those that are found on all islands?
Should we primarily focus on a limited range of native plants that are easy to grow, or suggest spectacular native plants that are more difficult to grow?
While our goal is to rewild urban landscapes and restore and connect ecosystems, we know that many people still prefer well-maintained and controlled landscaping. We try to address these tastes and hope that people will open up to a different garden aesthetic in the long term.
To see is to believe, so we started a sub-project to document places across the state where people are already growing native Hawaiian plants, sometimes in combination with canoe plants. We’re also planning to start a competition so homeowners can show off their Hawaiian landscaping and inspire others.
Several community experts such as Sam Gon, Jonathan Price, Noa Lincoln, Carl Evensen and renowned landscape architect Rick Quinn have provided us with valuable feedback and advice.
It will take some time to build a native Hawaiian urban forest network, but we believe it will be a positive development for Hawaii’s economy, people, and Aina.