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FeaturesThe Green Leaf

Partnership works to save endangered nau plant

Nina Wu
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The nau, or Hawaiian or forest gardenia, is a small tree belonging to the coffee family that grows to a height of about 15 feet in the wild. Also called nanu, it is endemic, meaning it is native to Hawaii and only found here.

Nau (Gardenia brighamii) once thrived on all the main Hawaiian isles. Now it is on the endangered species list with only 12 plants on Lanai and one tree in the wild on Oahu.

The lone Oahu specimen is the last of three that had been growing on the lower- elevation dryland slopes of the Nanakuli Forest Reserve.

To protect it, the Hawaii Plant Extinction Prevention Program is putting a fence around the plant, according to botanist Susan Ching.

The fencing was made possible by a donation of $2,781 from Hawaiian Springs, a bottled water company that features a nau on its bottles. Besides fencing material, the donation will pay for a helicopter to fly in volunteers so they won’t have to make the 45-minute hike to the site.

The volunteers are from the Board of Water Supply, Waianae Mountains Watershed Partnership, Hawaii Forest Reserve and Ka‘ala Farm.

“It is such an iconic plant,” Ching said. “People are surprised to know only one is left.”

The plants can live long in their natural habitat; one specimen was documented as 65 years old, according to the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Nau’s white flowers are smaller than the common gardenias most people have in their yards. The fragrance is less perfumey, having more of a buttery aroma, according to Ching.

THE WOOD from nau was one of several native species used to make the kua kuku (anvils) to beat kapa, according to the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai. Its flowers were used for lei and the orange-yellow fruit pulp for dye.

Ching said nau trees succumb to three usual culprits: drought, fire and animals, namely pigs and goats. The two trees that were in Nanakuli were destroyed by fires over the last 10 years. The remaining one is surrounded by invasive Guinea grass.

To keep the nau from disappearing, the state’s plant extinction program has gathered cuttings from various trees to cultivate in a greenhouse.

If you would like to grow nau in your yard, they are available at Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian nursery that sells its plants at Home Depot.

Hawaiian Springs intends to continue working with the plant program on projects.

Nina Wu writes about environmental issues. Reach her at 529-4892 or nwu@staradvertiser.com.

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