Students collaborate to promote native plants

Makani Yogi, Malia Heimuli and Maile Wong root native Hawaiian plants at Hui Ku Maoli Ola Nursery –Rick Oania-Elam

There are many WCC programs that use, study and promote native Hawaiian plants. While the campus has its own collection of native plants, WCC’s botany classes will be collaborating with Hui Kū Maoli Ola, a nursery located just a few minutes away on Haiku Road, to grow and do research on ‘ōhi‘a, koa and other native Hawaiian plants from the facility.

The college already has many connections to the nursery. Every semester, botany students go on field trips there where they can see, touch and take seeds and cuttings of different native plants. Students also have the opportunity to work at the nursery and get hands-on experience collecting native seeds for planting or assisting in other growing projects.

“Knowledge and the sharing of this knowledge is key to the successful growth of many of these native Hawaiian plants,” said native plant enthusiast Makani Yogi, who works at the nursery.

Knowing how these plants grow and behave can speed  their growth and help boost their long-term survival. By applying techniques such as scarifying seeds to encourage quicker germination or propagating plants using their cuttings as opposed to seeds, research and restoration can be done quicker and with better results.

According to Yogi, some growing techniques were discovered intentionally and others by accident. Either way, the staff at Hui Kū Maoli Ola is more than willing to pass on the information to WCC students. Many different native plants are grown and studied by both WCC students and the nursery, however two areas that are of particular concern to those in the field are the ‘ōhi‘a and koa tree rejuvenation efforts.

The ‘ōhi‘a lehua or Metrosideros polymorpha is currently in peril. In 2014, two fungal pathogens called ceratocystis huliohia and ceratocystis lukuohia were identified and later dubbed ROD or Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death. In a few years, unimaginable damage has been done to ‘ōhi‘a trees and entire ‘ōhi‘a forests. Some areas on Hawai‘i island have experienced as much as a 90 percent loss of their ‘ōhi‘a trees.

The fungus is almost impossible to detect before visible damage can be observed like the browning and falling of leaves. However by this stage, it is too late and the tree will more than likely die.

The continued loss of these trees and at such an alarming rate is of great concern. The ‘ōhi‘a is referred to as a keystone tree; it’s the first tree to grow from solid lava providing the opportunity for many other native life forms to coexist with it. If the ‘ōhi‘a is lost, countless native species that grow in its shade as well as an array of native birds that nest in its branches will perish as well. The loss of this tree would have devastating effects on biological diversity, hydrology and Hawaiian cultural traditions.

To combat this, WCC students plan to assist in growing ‘ōhi‘a starter plants for Hui Kū Maoli Ola in the WCC greenhouses. The plants will then be given to the ‘Ōhi‘a Legacy Initiative, which plans to distribute free ‘ōhi‘a trees to O‘ahu residents in the hopes of establishing a healthy population of the trees here on the island in case a ROD outbreak ever finds its way here.

Similar steps have also been taken to help promote and restore koa trees. Though koa is not endangered, the number of Acacia koa trees has significantly diminished in the past century. Mass deforestation due to its demand as a globally renowned wood alongside recurring problems of fungus, disease, moths and beetles all contributed to its decline.

Hui Kū Maoli Ola raises koa starters specific in origin to O‘ahu for distribution on the island to stay true to what is supposed to be growing here. Though different varieties of koa can be found on O‘ahu, a close source provides better results when growing the tree.

Teena Michael, a botany instructor at WCC, is optimistic to see the development of these projects.

“So many things have already been done here, but it’s exciting to see the momentum and interest grow,” Michael said.

Besides working with ‘ōhi‘a and koa, WCC students have done research to identify plant traits and chemical compounds that give reasoning and scientific proof to the many usages of native plants. For instance, studies have investigated leaves of native Hawaiian plants to find their medical properties. WCC students have also gotten hands-on to support the Na Pohaku o Hauwahine native plant restoration, a project at Kawainui Marsh to remove invasive plants and replace them with native plants.

In addition, Michael plans to further develop and maintain the many gardens of native Hawaiian plants around WCC to coincide with the upcoming expansion of the existing greenhouse and Agripharmatech program.

Many students share her passion in supporting these plants and programs.

Botany and agriculture student Natalie Brewer said that she is optimistic about what’s going on and plans to dedicate time to these projects.

“What interests me about native plants is how unique and rare they are,” she said. “I support projects like these because conservation of these plants and the protection of them from invasive species is important to me.”

For more information on plant conservation and restoration efforts at WCC, contact Teena Michael at or the chair of the sustainability club, Christian Palmer, at


by Rick Oania-Elam, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter