Go to homepage

LT's Natural Resources Team works to restore native plant species under threat of extinction


In Kona, on lands stewarded by Liliʻuokalani Trust (LT), an in-house Natural Resources team is working hard to restore native plant species under threat of extinction.

One restoration area is in the Keahuolū ahupuaʻa, which was once part of Kona’s larger dryland forest ecosystem and the most abundant of its kind in Hawai’i. The propagation of rare dryland species, along with several other native plants, occurs at LT’s plant nursery. This 30-by-90-foot greenhouse is located at the same elevation as the ancient Kona Field System, just mauka of the restoration site. 

In partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kamehameha Schools, LT is reestablishing three critically endangered native species:

Wahine Noho Kula (Isodendrion pyrifolium) — The Wahine Noho Kula is a member of the violet family. It was thought to be extinct for over a century, but in 1991, four plants were discovered by developers surveying land in Kona. Because the Wahine Noho Kula is extinct in the wild, LT has been working with other landowners to propagate and plant the species on private and public parcels on Hawaiʻi Island.

Koʻokoʻolau (Bidens micrantha subspecies ctenophylla) — A native sunflower, the Koʻokoʻolau is known as the Spanish needle, or grassland beggartick. Its small, yellow flowers were used to make lei, and its leaves were made into herbal tinctures. In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated 500 individual Koʻokoʻolau growing in the wild in Kona, and 2,300 individuals growing in reintroduced populations.

Uhiuhi (Mezoneuron kavaiense) — Fewer than 100 uhiuhi remain in the wild. The wood of the tree is highly dense and durable. Native Hawaiians of the past used its wood to make pāhoa (daggers), spears, fishing sticks, hale posts, and other items. The uhiuhi tree’s flowers are purplish red, with seeds that rattle inside of mature pods.    

The restoration of native landscapes also supports kamali’i healing, educational programming through cultural practice, and contributes to the community’s larger conservation efforts.

In addition to these three species, LT is outplanting hundreds of native plants a year throughout the ahupua’a, so that LT’s kamaliʻi will be able to see and learn how their ancestors used materials for traditional fishing and other cultural practices, says Nursery Specialist Brian Kiyabu.

“As more restoration efforts happen throughout the island, maybe some of these species can be deleted from the Endangered Species Act, to be used culturally,” he says.

Kiyabu also grows traditional food crops on 10 acres of land surrounding LT’s plant nursery, including lychee, various citrus, ‘ōhiʻa ai (mountain apple), ulu (breadfruit), kalo (taro), ‘uala (sweet potato), kō (sugar cane), avocadoes, among others. Earlier this year, high school students from nearby Kealakehe High School visited the land to learn about endemic plants and their cultural significance.

“We want to engage our beneficiaries in ‘āina and encourage them to feel connected, develop a sense of belonging and place, and start to care about their land,” Kiyabu says.

In addition to ʻāina-based education, Kīpuka Kona also hosts hundreds of student volunteers every year to mālama ʻāina by removing invasive species, outplanting, and conducting water quality and species monitoring.

“Our team’s kuleana aligns with the ʻāina,” says Paka Davis, Director, Natural Assets & Operations. “Our responsibility of caring for ʻāina is in such a way that we can collaborate with LT’s social services and youth development teams to serve our kamaliʻi.”

Through these ongoing efforts, LT is not only restoring the native ecosystem in the Keahuolū ahupuaʻa but also fostering deeper connections between the land and future generations.

In reflecting on the significance of this project to the Trust, Davis noted "LT’s kamaliʻi are learning and growing alongside the native plant life. Both are on track for thriving futures."