Protecting Hawaii’s Precious Plants

Planting native blossoms gives Oahu's unique landscape a fighting chance.

Oahu is booming. But with buildings and people displacing a habitat that supports more than 100 of Hawaii’s 354 endangered or threatened plant species, the natural world isn’t. Janice Staab is making biodiversity a priority on the island’s western coast. As education coordinator at the nonprofit Malama Learning Center in Kapolei and one of Audubon’s TogetherGreen fellows, she’s grooming high school students from a variety of backgrounds to become the next generation’s land stewards, teaching them what sustainability means and how to maintain native nurseries. 

What will grow in the nurseries?  

Dryland and coastal plants. Naupaka kahakai is one of them. It’s a fairly broadleaf plant, with white berries and beautiful flowers—they’re tiny, white, and look like a circle cut in half. Another is pa‘u o hi‘iaka. That plant is like ground cover, with beautiful purple flowers. 

Who will be the nurseries’ site stewards? 

I’ll have three different interns learning about propagating native plants and then also doing restoration projects at three work sites on Oahu. A big part of my fellowship project focuses on introducing students to green jobs. Native-plant propagation and restoration has a lot to do with jobs in natural resource management.

Why are green jobs your focus?

Many people think that environmental jobs are volunteer positions. They don’t understand that an actual career can go along with it. They can make a living doing something they love to do and being outdoors, as well as helping Hawaii’s ecosystems.

Why pick Oahu’s leeward coast for this work? 

In west Oahu the climate is drier. Some of the plants will require extra care because of that. But also, the population is a bit different. There’s a large mix in Hawaii in general, but there are a lot more native Hawaiians here than anywhere else on Oahu.

Why is education like this important in Hawaii?

We have so many plants and animals that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. If we don’t learn about caring for them now, then they’ll basically go extinct. So it’s pretty critical for us to learn. 

This story originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as "Hawaiian Punch."