Campus Greens: Plants at UH Manoa

By Kelii Alapai.

Campus life doesn’t just start at the Campus Center or at a UH football game; it’s rooted deeper in the earth at UH Manoa: the plants. Not every student is aware of the uses and effects of certain plants on campus, but professionals think there is a “pharmacy” of different plants on campus.

No matter where you’re walking, you will always see green at UH Manoa. “Manoa,” in Hawaiian, means vast and wide. It was given its name by King Kamehameha the Great because of the lushness of the area and the wealth of plants that were abundant there such as kalo (taro) and u’ala (sweet potato) that Kamehameha grew for his army. The beauty of Manoa was loved by ali’i, kings and queens especially for its rainbows and waterfalls on the Ko’olau mountains.

Some of the plants on campus are native, meaning that they grew here or were brought here by the very first Hawaiian people. Plants such as kuku’i and kamani, kou and ti are more recognizable plants on campus that were of much importance to the first Hawaiians. Not many students are familiar with or recognize the plants on campus, especially by their Hawaiian names (if the plants have one).

“The connections between plants and Hawaiian people go very deep,” says Leeward Community College Botany professor, Angela Nishimoto. “They knew a lot about the natural world.”

“Hawaiian people depended upon plants for food, shelter, clothing, fuel, cordage, recreation, arts and medicine,” she said.

We all know that plants are the basis of the food chain. Everything we take into our bodies as nutrients comes form plants, except water and salt. Plants remain the main sources of fuels — even modern-day fossil fuels come from decayed plants from millions of years ago.

There are a few medicinal plants on campus that have been used for hundreds of years by the Hawaiian people that if located in the right areas still have their medicinal benefits.

“Medicinal plants can sometimes lose their quality easily by weather changes or even man-made changes,” says a UH Manoa groundskeeper. Most people are unaware of the actual effects plants may have on them and if they really do have “healing” qualities.

“I believe the medicinal plants of the old days would still have medicinal benefits … the practitioner would be careful where the plants are collected, though — not alongside a busy road or anywhere there is pollution,” adds Professor Nishimoto.

Some medicinal plants on campus are the kuku’i nut, whose oil can be used as a candle and also, in some cases, deter skin fungus better known in Hawaii as “haole rot.”

The Kamani tree nut has oil that can be used to cure dry scalp or dandruff. Also, one very recognizable plant used in lei making and food transportation in the old days is the ti plant or ki (Hawaiian name). The leaves can be wrapped around hot stones and used as “hot packs,” or the young shoots can be boiled to make an effective decongestant and also used to aid nerve and muscle relaxation. One widely known plant for its use on open cuts, wounds or abrasions is the Aloe plant. It is not native to the islands, but a lot of people still use it today to alleviate pain and close wounds on the body.

Lots of plants at UH Manoa can be useful; you just have to be aware of what they are and how to get more information on them. UH Manoa has a campus plant map and brochure found at the Botany department or even at student services offices. This brochure lists pictures of different plants that are noteworthy on campus, their genus/ family names, Hawaiian names (if any) and where on campus you can find them. Many people don’t bother to look at the plants on campus or even learn their names, but the plants are a gateway to the history of the school and the island and getting this information can be interesting in the long run.

Most plants and trees on campus are “name tagged.” The “name tags” include the plant’s genus name, family name and their Hawaiian names. Some also include where they originated. These tags can be useful when looking at the campus plant map and can get people better acquainted with the “greens” at UH Manoa.

The University of Manoa also oversees Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden. It is located in the only tropical rainforest on Oahu in Manoa Valley. Here there are a plethora of native and indigenous plant life that anyone can take part in. Students, faculty and staff are more than welcomed to take part as volunteers at the arboretum and botanical garden.

“If people want to get reconnected to the plants on campus, they can also volunteer at the lo’i in the Hawaiian studies area of campus,” says Nishimoto. Periodically, there are clean ups of Manoa stream, too, that can help students get in touch with nature.

Sometimes just taking a long stroll on campus and soaking in all the information the plants give off can be beneficial. Getting to know the campus includes getting to know the plants and people may be surprised by all the strange-looking, colorful plants found on campus. Students can do their part and take one for the plants. The plants can help students and the students can help the plants. Volunteering on campus with plants can be a benefit for the students, the island and the earth.

For more information on how you can support the UH Botany Department or how you can get involved in volunteering at the campus lo’i or Lyon Arboretum, contact the Botany department at 956-3923 or visit the website for more details at

Kukui Nut tree on the UH Manoa campus near Keller Hall by the vending machines.