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Hawaii’s unique island ecosystem has fostered the evolution of many wondrous native plants over millions of years. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Some of the most iconic Hawaiian native plants include hibiscus, palm trees, plumerias, koa trees, and different ferns.

This article will provide an in-depth look at the many native plants that evolved in splendid isolation in Hawaii and make the islands so botanically special, including beautiful flowering plants, magnificent tall trees, and humble ferns and grasses that have adapted to thrive in Hawaii’s varied microclimates across the archipelago.

Origin Story: How Hawaii’s Remote Islands Gave Rise to Unique Flora

Hawaii’s Extreme Geographic Isolation

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chain on Earth, located over 2,000 miles from the nearest continent (North America). This extreme remoteness led to very few plant species originally colonizing the islands after their volcanic birth from the sea floor around 70 million years ago.

However, the hardy plants that did find their way to Hawaii’s shores evolved into a dazzling display of unique flora over millions of years.

The first wave of plant colonizers likely came from the west, carried as seeds by birds from Asia and Australia. These intrepid plants adapted to Hawaii’s varied microclimates and soils, which range from sandy beaches, to rainforests, to alpine deserts on volcanic mountain slopes.

Cut off from their parent populations, Hawaiian plants were subjected to strong evolutionary pressures, which transformed them into new species found nowhere else on Earth.

Adaptive Radiation Leads to New Native Species

The biological process of “adaptive radiation” is responsible for much of Hawaii’s astonishing biodiversity. When an organism colonizes a new habitat free of competitors, it diversifies rapidly as it exploits a variety of empty ecological niches.

A fantastic example is the Hawaiian silversword alliance, consisting of over 28 plant species all believed to be descended from a single ancestor. Silverswords display a huge variety of forms and traits perfectly suited to their specific island homes.

Other remarkable Hawaiian plant radiations include lobeliads (126 species, all descended from a single invading lobelia) and carnivorous sundews (23 species of insect-eating Drosera plants). Even more modest radiations produced lovely endemic flowers like hibiscus, orchids, and impatiens found only in Hawaii.

Altogether, 89% of over 1,000 native Hawaiian plant species are endemic, meaning their evolutionary origins began on the islands. Without this profound isolation, such a wildly diverse flora could never have arisen.

Major Types of Native Plants in Hawaii

Lush Tropical Rainforest Plants

The rainiest parts of Hawaii are cloaked in magnificent tropical rainforests filled with a diversity of plants perfectly adapted to hot, humid conditions. Towering koa and ohia trees form dense canopies overhead, giving shade to delicate ferns and vibrant red and yellow native hibiscus flowers sprouting underneath.

Creeping vines like maile and lilies like awapuhi add to the rainforest richness.

These steamy lowland rainforests occur on windward sides of the islands, which wring moisture out of the northeast trade winds. Here rainfall exceeds 240 inches a year, supporting lush plant life.

Hardy Alpine Plants of High Elevations

At higher elevations in Hawaii, hardy native plants withstand freezing temperatures and high winds. Subalpine stone deserts scattered with clumps of grasses and heath shrubs give way to open woodlands of weather-beaten ohia trees.

Ohia reach tree line on Hawaii’s tallest peaks, sometimes becoming crammed miniatures warped by the extreme climate.

Silverswords, the spectacular rosette plant emblematic of Hawaii, grow up here too. Their silvery-green dagger leaves help reflect sunlight in the thin dry air and reduce water loss. Haleakala silversword survives only on Maui’s highest cinder cone, while relatives like Mauna Kea silversword have adapted to other islands’ peaks.

Coastal Plants Adapted to Salt Spray and Wind

Pounded by wind and salt spray, vegetation along Hawaii’s coasts withstands drought conditions and poor sandy soils. Beach naupaka, with its half-flower shaped like a severed coconut, grows right on the shoreline.

Inland, groves of hala (pandanus) trees with aerial roots and long drooping leaves offer shelter to more delicate native shrubs and grasses.

Hawaii’s coastal plants have developed innovative ways to spread. Beach pea and other coast-dwelling peas have seeds that can float long distances before washing ashore and sprouting. Some naupaka species reproduce vegetatively – branches that snap off in storms can take root in new locations.

Iconic Endemic Flowering Plants

Hawaii is home to over 1,000 native plant species, 90% of which are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. Many of these endemic plants are vibrant and colorful flowers that have become iconic symbols of the islands. Here are some of the most iconic endemic flowering plants in Hawaii:

ʻŌhiʻa Lehua

The ʻōhiʻa lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) is a tree with fluffy red, orange, yellow, or white flowers. It grows in forests across the islands and is culturally significant in Hawaiian legends. Its brilliant blossoms are composed of a mass of stamens and represent the Hawaiian goddess Pele’s hair.

Hawaiian Hibiscus

Hawaiian hibiscus, known as “maʻo hau hele,” comes in many bright colors like yellow, pink, red, and orange. Its showy flowers make it a popular ornamental plant, but some species are also important in making fabric dyes and hibiscus extract. The yellow hibiscus is Hawaii’s state flower.


The ʻilima is a small yellow-orange flower that often grows along the seashore. Its petite blossoms are made into lei and hold cultural meaning in hula dancing. ʻIlima is also significant as the inspiration for the royal standard of the monarch Kingdom of Hawaii.

Other Notable Flowers

Other endemic Hawaiian flowers include the red lehua ‘apane, the striking lobeliads that grow on volcanic cliffs, the bright silver swords that light up alpine landscapes, and the wiliwili tree with its fragrant yellow blossoms.

These special plants sprout flowers in an array of shapes and colors, adding beauty and life across the islands. Many are used for lei, while some have mythological stories and medicinal purposes behind them.

Hawaii’s flowers showcase the islands’ rich biodiversity and highlight the need to preserve its fragile endemic habitats.

Magnificent Endemic Trees

Hawaii is home to some truly magnificent native tree species that exist nowhere else on Earth. Thanks to Hawaii’s remote location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and wide variation in climate and terrain across the islands, many unique plants have evolved here over millions of years.


One of the most impressive endemic trees is the koaloa (Acacia koa). This tall, broad-canopied tree grows up to 100 feet high and produces a beautifully grained, rich reddish-brown wood prized by woodworkers.

In fact, koaloa wood was traditionally used to make sacred objects, canoes, and surfboards by Native Hawaiians. Today, koaloa forests blanket areas of higher elevation on most major Hawaiian islands. These iconic trees are so beloved that Hawaii recently named koaloa as the official state tree!

‘Ōhi’a Lehua

Another of Hawaii’s most cherished native trees is the ‘ōhi’a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha). It grows across a wide range of elevations and lava flows. Lehua flowers ranging from bright red to yellow adorn this tree, making a striking contrast against dark lava fields.

These beloved blossoms are used to make fragrant lei necklaces. The resilient ‘ōhi’a lehua tree is considered a keystone species in Hawaii’s native forests for its critical role in watershed function and providing habitat for native birds.

Tree Species Unique Traits Ecosystem Services
Koaloa Valuable lumber, iconic status Soil building, bird habitat
‘Ōhi’a Lehua Pretty flowers, hardy pioneer species Watershed protection, bird food source

Protecting these amazing endemic trees and the forests they anchor is crucial for preserving Hawaii’s natural heritage. Efforts are underway to combat threats from invasive species, development, and disease.

With care and dedication, future generations will continue enjoying Hawaii′s one-of-a-kind forests!

Ancient Ferns and Grasses

The Hawaiian islands are home to a unique diversity of native plants that have evolved over millions of years in isolation. Among the most ancient plant lineages found in Hawaii are the ferns and grasses.

Native Hawaiian Ferns

Ferns are an ancient group of vascular plants that reproduce via spores rather than seeds. Hawaii is home to over 150 species of native ferns. Some of the most iconic Hawaiian ferns include:

  • Hapu’u Tree Ferns – These large tree ferns with lush, arching fronds can grow over 25 feet tall. They often blanket the moist, shady forests of the islands.
  • ‘Ama’u Ferns – The lacy, delicate fronds of these ferns provided material for woven hats and garlands in ancient Hawaiian culture.
  • Palapalai Ferns – These ferns cling to steep cliffs and waterfall walls with their thick, wiry roots.

The isolation of the Hawaiian islands allowed many unique fern species to evolve here. Sadly, over half of Hawaii’s native ferns are now considered endangered or threatened due to habitat loss and invasive species.

Ancient Hawaiian Grasses

There are over 90 species of endemic Hawaiian grasses. While they may seem humble, these ancient grass lineages tell a fascinating history.

One key native grass in Hawaii is Pili Grass. Forming dense clumps along the coastline, Pili Grass helped secure the islands’ sand dunes and prevent erosion for thousands of years. Ancient Hawaiians also prized it for thatching roofs of traditional grass huts.

Pili Grass and other native bunchgrasses have become increasingly rare due to development and invasive species spread.

Another iconic Hawaiian grass lineage is the Pua’a or Ohe plants. Often blooming with vibrant brush-like flower heads, Hawaiian Pua’a grasses diversified to fill an amazing variety of niches in the islands.

There are dwarf Pua’a only a few inches tall, as well as towering 6-foot tree-like Pua’a varieties.

Native Hawaiian Grasses 90+ species
Endangered Hawaiian Grasses 25+ species

Sadly over a quarter of Hawaii’s native grasses are now endangered. Protecting their remaining habitat is crucial. As some of the first plants to colonize the volcano-born islands, these ancient Hawaiian grass lineages tell a one-of-a-kind story of evolution.


Hawaii’s long isolation from other landmasses has given rise to wondrous endemic flora found nowhere else on Earth—from vibrant tropical plants to hardy alpine species uniquely adapted to Hawaii’s varied microclimates and ecosystems.

Understanding and preserving Hawaii’s botanical heritage has become an urgent priority.

We hope this overview gives you an appreciation for Hawaii’s exceptionally rich native plant life. Though space was limited, there are hundreds more native Hawaiian floral species worth exploring across a diverse archipelago evolved for plants.

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