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Features | The Urban Gardener

Urban Gardener: Be a friend to pollinators with native plants

  • COURTESY WILLIAM HAINES, UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII

    A Kamehameha butterfly rests on a mamaki plant.

A manicured lawn and the standard tropical landscaping that is often seen these days unfortunately does not do much to attract or support a healthy diversity of native and beneficial insects.

Native Hawaiian plants provide food and habitat for native insects and other introduced pollinators and beneficial insects. They provide pollen and nectar for not just honeybees, but a wide range of insects such as butterflies, solitary bees, parasitoid wasps (they sting insect pests, not people), lady beetles and other predatory insects. You can find native plants well-suited for any neighborhood in Hawaii. If properly selected, they will require only occasional watering and fertilizing once established.

Lady beetles are attracted to gardens with ample pollen and nectar, and may be drawn to native plants that are constantly providing small flowers such as aweoweo. Uhaloa may attract carpenter bees, which are more effective than honeybees at pollinating lilikoi, due to their large size. They are also more effective pollinators for your cucurbit crops such as squash, bitter melon and cucumber. While some people are afraid the bees will damage their home, they prefer unpainted, untreated wood. You can leave out blocks of wood, stumps or branches, at least 4 by 4 inches wide and 1 foot long, for them to make their nests in.

Many native plants are not just great for good bugs, but also have other uses. Ilima and ohia can make beautiful lei. Ukiuki can be used to make dye with its purple berries. The short, compact selection being sold for landscaping makes a nice blue-purple color, while the taller variety found on Oahu’s mountains makes a dye that can be politely described as yellowish-brown.

The native shrub or tree mamaki is a food source for the caterpillar of the Kamehameha butterfly. Many may not know that this is the state insect of Hawaii, after students from Pearl Ridge Elementary School proposed the idea to the Legislature in 2009. Planting mamaki in your garden may help to provide food and habitat for this beautiful but increasingly rare butterfly. Even if the butterfly never makes it to your backyard, you make tea with the leaves of this plant. Mamaki tea is growing more popular for its fine flavor and beneficial properties, and is very pricey in the market.

Free Pollinator Awareness festival

You can learn about how to care for our native butterflies and bees at the Urban Garden Center on Saturday from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the free Pollinator Awareness festival. The event will feature honey tasting, mamaki tea tasting, mamaki plant sales, building a bee house and a plant sale featuring plants friendly to beneficial bugs. Keiki can immerse themselves in butterflies in the Butterfly Encounter Tent, hosted by Sharing the Butterfly Experience. The center is located at 955 Kamehameha Highway, Pearl City; 453-6050.

For more information about the garden and events, visit www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/ougc. Visit www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/UHMG for more on the master gardener program.

To learn more about native plants for pollinators, visit Dr. Chrissy Mogren’s website, cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/pollinators.

For more, take a look at the “Insectary Plants for Hawaii” handbook, produced by Dr. Koon-Hui Wang, at 808ne.ws/handbook.


Kalani Matsumura is a junior extension agent with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and coordinates the UH Master Gardener Program on Oahu.


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