Denby Fawcett: These Native Hawaiian Plants Are Dying — Here's Why We Should Care - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

In the best of times, Native Hawaiian plants can be difficult to maintain. But during the pandemic some are dying in expensive government landscaping projects.

One of the most beautiful landscaping jobs of Native Hawaiian and Polynesian-introduced plants was the terraced plantings at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Diamond Head.

“It was as close as you could get to perfect,” said landscape contractor Kevin Mulkern.

But today the roadside terraces at the front of the institute are dotted with dead ohia lehua trees and the barren stalks of what were once ruby red ti leaf plants.

Roadside terraces at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific are dotted with dead ohia lehua trees. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

“If you can’t take care of them, don’t plant them. It’s such a waste,” says Diamond Head resident Ann Rayson, who regularly walks by the once lush plantings.

It might seem dramatic to worry about the survival of Native Hawaiian plants at a time when so many residents are worried about their health and economic well-being during the pandemic.

But at times of stress like this, Hawaii’s natural beauty becomes more important than ever to lighten the darkness of uncertainty.

And it is depressing to look at a bunch of dead native plants that we paid for with our tax dollars.

The state is mandated to plant native plants in a law signed by Gov. David Ige in 2015 to require the inclusion of Native Hawaiian plants in the state’s new and renovated landscaping projects —  gradually increasing the minimum footprint of native plant coverage from 10% in 2019 to 30% by 2030.

The native plant mandate is the right thing to do because Hawaii’s are becoming extinct almost faster that we can learn their names.

But the reality can be difficult with budget constraints and personnel shortages.

Dried up red ti plants at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific show how native and Polynesian-introduced plants mandated in state projects are suffering from lack of care amid the pandemic. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

Native plants can be finicky when they are planted in unsuitable environments or when their maintenance is spotty.

Like all plants, they require weeding and proper irrigation. Lack of water is what killed the plants at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific.

“The Culinary Institute of the Pacific campus began experiencing irrigation issues earlier this year. We are currently investigating the issues and (have) no timeline on when it will be resolved,” University of Hawaii spokesman Daniel Meisenzahl said in an email. “Another issue is that we have had an abnormally dry year and have heard that other parks, nurseries, and gardens are experiencing the same issue.”

The campus has received plenty of rainfall recently, but that has not revived the dead specimens. Instead, their desiccated skeletons are choked with masses of weeds and invasive bushes.

Particularly sad are the dead ohia lehua trees.

Native Hawaiian plant landscaper Rick Barboza says irrigation breaks happen, but they need to be repaired quickly.

“When irrigation breaks and no one puts in the time to fix it, there is a risk of losing an entire landscape that probably cost tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.

Barboza is the owner of Oahu’s first commercial nursery devoted entirely to Native Hawaiian and Polynesian-introduced plants, Hui Ku Maoli Ola.

Native Plants Can Be Finicky

UH did not have an immediate answer to how much it cost to do the native plant installation at the Culinary Institute. It was part of the $25 million Phase I of the institute that opened in March 2017.

After the native plants were installed by Green Thumb Inc., the university hired the company to maintain the plantings from 2017 to 2018, then to continue on an on-call basis from June 2018 to May 2020.

Green Thumb’s president, James Furuyama, said UH told his company it could not afford to extend the contract. He said when Green Thumb left all the native plants were doing well.

Landscape maintenance professional Heidi Bornhorst says the solution at the Culinary Institute is simple: the university should fix the irrigation problem now and control the weeds.

“Many native plants are tough. But that doesn’t mean you can neglect them. They need what we all need: water and care,” says Bornhorst, who wrote the book “Growing Native Plants: A How-To Guide for the Gardener.”

The $30 million Phase II of the Culinary Institute is now under construction, featuring a restaurant, an auditorium and a culinary innovation complex to be completed in 2022. It will also feature native plant landscaping.

The UH spokesman called the Culinary Institute “one of the jewels of the UH system.”

Meisenzahl said the university’s operations and maintenance staff is working with botany faculty members to repair the damage.

“We don’t want to drag our feet, but we are also looking at a $70 million shortfall this year in the university’s operating budget,” he said.

Another state project featuring an abundance of native plants is the Fort Ruger Pathway, a concrete walkway that starts at the Culinary Institute and runs for 1.3 miles to 22nd Avenue.

Native Hawaiian and other plants featured in state projects like the Fort Ruger Pathway are struggling due to lack of care amid the pandemic. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

The Department of Land and Natural Resources opened the $2.7 million pedestrian and bicycle pathway in February 2015, with the Hawaii Tourism Authority kicking in $650,000 to pay for the landscaping.

Now almost all of the Native Hawaiian plants along the pathway are dead. In other areas, native plants such as pohinahina, a shrub with silvery green leaves, are dying as weeds overtake them.

Native plant expert Barboza says a clear problem with maintaining native plants is that garden maintenance crews today are often too mechanically oriented, dependent on weed whackers and leaf blowers.

“They don’t want to get down and dirty on their knees to pull out weeds,” he said.

Bornhorst says, “We call it mow, blow and go.”

The Fort Ruger Pathway has brown stretches of bare dirt and exposed irrigation tubes where once there were 4,000 newly planted ukiuki plants and 17,000 tufts of akiaki grass.

Rainmaker Landscaping Hawaii installed the plants. At the time, company owner Jay McGaughy told me:  “We get tons of compliments from people coming down the walkway. I think we did a good job. The native plants will survive better here than non-natives.”

But he was overly optimistic because today only some of the native milo and kou trees his company planted continue to do well in the hot and dry Diamond Head setting.

McGaughy, reached by phone on Monday, said his company had a 90-day contract to maintain the garden and the garden was doing well when the contract expired.

“That is a problem we have when we turn over a landscaping project that is in healthy, thriving and pristine condition. We can’t control what happens after that. It is out of our hands,” he said.

He suspects that the irrigation got turned off for a long period of time. DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison was asked what happened but did not reply.

Bornhorst suggests that the state consider setting up a nonprofit for residents to volunteer to help maintain the Native Hawaiian gardens and to raise money for continuing maintenance.

“I get so mad every time I drive by the gardens and see them deteriorating,” she says.

A nearby public garden run by the city has also had its share of deaths of Native Hawaiian plants.

Plants at the city-run Queen Kapiolani Garden also have died. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

That is the Queen Kapiolani Garden on Paki Avenue, where Native Hawaiian and Polynesian-introduced plants were placed around the garden to represent specimens from the different Hawaiian Islands.

The project started in 2014 when the city passed its own law saying whenever feasible native plants should be included in city landscaping projects.

Now the Queen Kapiolani Garden has open patches of earth where the Hawaiian plants once grew, with signs in front of each patch with the plant’s Hawaiian and scientific Latin name.

Urban Forestry Administrator Stan Oka, who is in charge of the landscaping at the garden, attributed the demise of many native plants there to “personnel problems,” which he declined to specify.

“We are doing better now. There are people working on it but there are still empty spots and some plants are dying,” he said.

He said many of the native plants are prone to diseases or attack by insects. “They wipe out certain species. That has always been a problem.”

Empty plots line the Queen Kapiolani Garden. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

It has also been challenging with the city mandate to plant Native Hawaiian trees along city streets, he says. He adds that the two native trees that grow well in the compacted soil that’s common beside urban streets are kou and lonomea, but they drop masses of hard seeds that can cause a slippery ground hazard for pedestrians.

But Oka says it is worth it to keep trying.

“We are not going to give up even with the budget cuts. We just must try harder. When we plant a native plant today, it is an investment for the future. We can’t afford to lose these plants,” he says.

Read this next:

It's Beyond Time To Finally Address Prison Reform

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

East Honolulu is very familiar with mow, blow and go mindset of the DOT.  In fact, they don't even want to do that so "planted" rocks in our median that get overrun with weeds.  And to top it off, they "trimmed" the only trees we did have so badly that they now have to be cut down.  Why is there no one who takes responsibility for the terrible work at the DOT?  

Leinani · 2 years ago

Great article Denby. The gov't might consider contracting with community groups to "adopt" and maintain certain areas, and call the gov't if there's a repair, like a broken pipe, needed. Many civil service maintenance workers will not go beyond the minimum. Contracting with community groups can be a win/win situation. The work gets done with care, and the gov't offers some monetary support to these non-profits. It will cost less than contracting with professional landscapers, and many of these non-profits could use the funding. Just need to get the unions to understand that the goal is to maintain these areas for beautification and see the plants thrive...not just uphold a job description. 

fiona · 2 years ago

 From my experience with landscapes, and native landscapes in particular, there's usually enough blame to go around. From design professionals who put more emphasis on what looks good than what's appropriate, to contractors who scrimp on soil preparation (often following the contract specs.) and rush through planting, to the often beleaguered maintenance personnel who aren't held to high standards, and managers who look the other way when "problems" arise. It seems to me that those of us privileged to make/have made land-nurturing a career ought to give more heart to "malama aina," or has that become just another marketing phrase? Everyone appreciates good landscapes, but who's willing to put in the right effort required? All three elements of landscaping: design, construction, and survaillance/maintenance must invest intelligence and effort into their creations. How else to honor our natural heritage?

DirtyNails · 2 years ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.