The littoral fringe ecosystem is as much a part of Hawaii’s shorelines as our popular beaches and reefs. The Aquarium wants to emphasize the important link between land and sea by drawing attention to this often overlooked native environment. Healthy shores and healthy reefs are a part of Hawaii’s heritage. Just as plants of the uplands protect the watershed with a cloak of vegetation, coastal plants secure the dunes and slow shoreline erosion. And, many coastal plants serve traditional uses and hold cultural significance in Hawai‘i and throughout the Pacific. Some plants, like the naupaka-kahakai (Scaevola sericea) are indigenous – found naturally in Hawai‘i as well as elsewhere. Others, like the ‘ohai (Sesbania tomentosa) are endemic – unique species found only in Hawai‘i. While others, like the kukui (Aleurites moluccana), were brought on canoes by early Polynesian settlers. These plants aren’t considered native, they are very culturally important species, that allowed early settlers to survive on remote islands with unfamiliar vegetation.

Sadly, human activities have altered or destroyed the natural profile and vegetation along much of Hawaii’s shores. Some shoreline developments and homes are built on the shore rather than behind it; landscaping often uses exotic ornamentals rather than adapted native plants. On less developed shorelines, recreational activities like, camping, and even hiking on the dunes, break the protective cover of vegetation – causing dunes to erode, and allowing aggressive weeds crowd out remaining native species.

Waikīkī once had a different profile and vegetation than we see today. The Waikīkī Aquarium’s Coastal Gardens provide a glimpse of the diversity of this important native habitat, fascinating plants and their adaptations. The Aquarium has expanded its plantings and helped restore a bit of Waikiki’s natural lei of native coastal plants. More than twenty native plant species are currently established in the Aquarium’s gardens.

Hala is a clump-forming tree seen in coastal and lowland wet forests. Roots that help to stabilize the tree, called prop roots, give this plant a distinctive appearance. This plant was extremely useful to early Polynesian settlers and was brought with them on their canoes. Hala leaves (lauhala) have a variety of uses including mats, hats, baskets, and home building. Recent evidence revealed that hala was brought by Polynesian settlers, and it naturally dispersed to Hawai‘i by floating seeds. This plant is now categorized as indigenous.