Grounded in Culture

The culture of ancient Hawai‘i was deeply rooted in nature. It still is — thanks to places like Maui Nui Botanical Gardens.

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Hawaiian poppyPUA KALA

Argemone glauca, Hawaiian poppy

The harsh, coastal lava fields of Hawai‘i bake in the sun, with edges sharp enough to cut. In the summer, heat ripples over the rocks. Yet here and there the vivid white face of the pua kala flower bobs jauntily atop a spiky blue-green stalk, cheerful and defiant in an unforgiving and desolate environment.      

Pua kala means “prickly flower,” and it is one of the few native plants with natural defenses. Nick it (carefully, without sticking yourself) and you’ll find the bright yellow sap that Hawaiians used to treat toothaches, ulcers and nerve pain — thanks to the opiates found in poppies worldwide. In the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, every life form on the land had a twin in the ocean, and for pua kala, that twin was the spiky seaweed limu kala. Both plants were woven into ho‘oponopono (forgiveness and release) ceremonies, which, when you think about it, is another way of easing pain.

Hawaiian CottonKou FlowerAwapuhi Shampoo GingerHalapepe
Hibiscussugar caneHawaiian poppy


Maui Nui Botanical Gardens is a green and soothing treasure in the windy heart of Kahului. Its mission is to preserve native and Polynesian-introduced plants and their cultural heritage. The grounds house a genetic repository unlike any other, where visitors can learn about landscaping and xeriscaping. The Gardens also provides access to plants for cultural practitioners. Enjoy a stroll through the Gardens and discover the history, stories and uses of Maui’s indigenous plants. Call or visit their website to join a tour, sign up for a workshop and learn about volunteer opportunities.

150 Kanaloa Ave., Kahului (across from the War Memorial Stadium) | 808.249.2798 | mnbg.org | IG/FB @mauinuibg

Our thanks to kumu hula Pueo Pata for his cultural insights on the plants featured in this essay.

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