Plants of Hawai‘i

According to Dr. Tim Gallaher, Botanist for the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Hawaiʻi still has around 1,100 endemic species and 109 indigenous species of plants today. About 131 endemic species only known in Hawaiʻi are now believed to be extinct. Around 27 Polynesian-introduced species also remain in the islands. However, between 6,000 to 12,000 non-native cultivated species can also be found in Hawaiʻi, and about 1,539 species have naturalized in the wild. New species of plants are introduced to Hawaiʻi on a regular basis, and these species unfortunately naturalize readily in our islands, threatening natural habitats and restoration areas. 

Bishop Museum’s Botany Department houses millions of herbarium specimens from Hawaiʻi and the Pacific. While most specimens are pressed leaves, flowers, or stems, other specimens like these samples of wood are also valuable in recording the life history of plants.

What this tells us is the natural and built environments of Hawaiʻi have continued to undergo large changes, even in the last few decades, and that both awareness and action are needed to protect the plants that make Hawaiʻi one of the most biologically distinct places on the planet. 

For many years, Bishop Museum has participated in efforts to catalogue and understand the native and non-native plants of Hawaiʻi and the Pacific through its massive collection of botanical specimens and archived field notes. These efforts were recognized by the state legislature almost twenty years ago. Since 1992, Bishop Museum’s past and present activities earned the designation of the Hawai’i Biological Survey, a recognition that has continued ever since. The Hawaiʻi Biological Survey (HBS) is a continually updated natural history inventory of native and non-native fauna and flora of the Hawaiian Islands. HBS helps in locating, identifying, and evaluating these species and maintaining reference collections for use by private, state, and federal agencies.  

Recently, Bishop Museum staff have been working on revamping a publication that has been used by experts, researchers, and the public to identify plants growing in Hawaiʻi. This book, called the “Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaiʻi,” originally published in 1990 and reflecting the taxa recorded as of 1987, has continued to be a primary resource for botanical study and comparison. This is part of a larger push to increase the museum’s capacity to be not only a repository for specimens, but also a center to analyze current and historical data with cutting-edge tools. This work will take information from the manual and create an online database that can be searched using a number of parameters, including dichotomous keys. The data will connect to multiple international bodies that allow the information to be updated frequently, automatically, and with great detail. The new database will also be able to project data to other sites relating to botanical and biological reference materials. 

Want to find out more about the Bishop Museum’s botany collections, ongoing projects, and see publications from HBS?

Visit https://www.bishopmuseum.org/botany/. To learn about the ongoing work of the museum’s natural science departments and other collections areas visit bishopmuseum.org/explore to keep updated with our museum ʻohana. 

Derral R. Herbst, S. H. Sohmer, and Warren L. Wagner take a close look at what may be an ʻohe makai specimen from the herbarium during their time working with the authors of the “Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaiʻi,” published in 1990. Since then, ʻohe makai and other endemic species related to it have been moved from genus Reynoldsia to genus Polyscias, which is a reminder that scientific naming and classification changes do sometimes occur well after an organism has been first described! 

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