Mix equal parts botany and sociology with some hard work and sushi, and you have the recipe for a company that is a cultural, environmental and business success. That’s the back story of Hui Kū Maoli Ola, Hawaiian Plant Specialists, a company based in Kāneʻohe and Waimānalo that traces its roots to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa campus.
Friends from small-kid time, college students Rick Barboza (BA ’99) and Matt Schirman (BA ’98) found their seemingly disparate majors had more in common than they anticipated.
“Matt was taking Hawaiian studies and I was studying zoology, but we found ourselves both starting to learn about native plants,” recalls Barboza. “I was learning it from an ecological standpoint, and Matt from the cultural side.”
In retrospect, it all makes sense.
“Plants are the foundation of our culture,” explains Schirman. “In Hawaiʻi, we have a unique set of cultural practices that utilize material from our native plants. If we lose the plants that are endemic to Hawaiʻi, then the cultural practices that use those plants will be affected. If we take care of the plants, we’re able to perpetuate those practices.”
Native plants also help sustain native wildlife, he adds. “Environmentally speaking, our native birds and insects co-evolved with the plants. Over time they have come to depend on those plants. If we lose the plants, we lose the birds, and another part of our culture.”
At the time, however, both young men were simply looking for native plants for their parents’ houses. “We went to a bunch of nurseries and they either didn’t have what we were looking for or had no idea what we were talking about,” says Barboza.
They began going hiking, returning home with seeds they gathered. After purchasing a few books on plant propagation, they began to test their green thumbs. “Soon we had about 30 plants. We only started out wanting enough for our homes. So there we were, with yards full of our extra plants”.
And a revelation.
“One time we were at the arboretum and counted 400 people in line for plants,” Barboza says. “If you weren’t one of the first 50 people, you weren’t getting any. So Matt and I would split up and grab whatever plants we could find. Then we’d get together and make sure we didn’t have any of the same plants. That’s how we built up our plant base.”
They decided to hold a plant sale of their own. Setting up shop at the university’s Hawaiian Studies building, they sold-out four truckloads. After another strong sale, Barboza and Schirman went into business full-time.
“Matt was in grad school and I was still finishing my bachelor’s degree. We decided to give it a try for a year. We figured if it failed we’d go back to school.”
Hui Kū Maoli Ola’s big break came in a sushi restaurant.
“I used to work part-time as a sushi chef in Waikīkī,” Barboza says. “So one night this guy walks in and we started talking story. He asked me if I did anything besides make sushi, and I mentioned our native plant business. He got excited and was really into it. He asked me if we could sell in bulk, and I said yes, even though we had fewer than 200 plants in stock at the time.”
Turns out the stranger was the executive buyer for Home Depot, then building its Honolulu store. “I didn’t even know what Home Depot was back then, but he left me his business card and I called a couple of weeks later,” Barboza says. “That allowed us to move forward with our business and it really expanded from there.”
Steady buyer in hand, Hui Kū Maoli Ola branched out, offering consulting and habitat restoration services to have a greater direct impact. Landscaping the new Disney resort in ʻEwa, the Kamehameha Schools campus and other Bishop Estate properties and undertaking restoration projects for federal and state agencies allowed the duo to return native plants to their habitats en masse. Helping in the effort are fellow Mānoa alumni—nursery manager Jon Lum (BA ’98) and project manager Kelvin McKeague (BA ’98).
“Our landscaping work gives us the ability to use native plants and showcase their natural beauty,” Barboza says. “The restorations are really near to my heart, as it allows us to remove invasive species and plant native plants that were meant to be there. It lets us set things back the way they were meant to be.”
Barboza and Schirman also provide educational services under their non-profit organization, Papahana Kuaola, which offers a variety of lectures and presentations, field trips and guided tours.
“The parcel of land we use consists of 60 acres. We have our nursery set-up on two of those acres,” Schirman says. “We use the rest of it for educational purposes and outreach to the community. That is a very important part of what we are trying to do.”
They hope to raise awareness of the identification and significance of native plants. There is lot of confusion about which are native plants, Barboza explains. Despite their Hawaiian names, ʻawapuhi, kiawe, kuawa and lilikoʻi are invasive species.
People who brought plants into the islands in the past didn’t foresee that invasive species would keep plants that belong here from growing. Strawberry guava, or waiwī, is one of the worst offenders in the wet forest. Its leaves fall to the ground and release a chemical that prevents other plants from growing in the area. A chemical released by eucalyptus roots has the same effect.
“In Hawaiʻi, we are finding it harder to practice our culture,” says Kamehameha Schools graduate Barboza. “The food we eat, the plants we made our clothes from, the plants that gave us the dye for our clothes, the plants our healers needed to practice, all come from our land. It’s a shame that hula hālau need to go to the neighbor islands to find lehua to make lei because they can’t find what they need here on Oʻahu.”
That may be changing. Since Hui Kū Maoli Ola formed in 1999, the state has honored 30,000 requests for the sale of endangered native plants from vendors. A whopping 75 percent of those came from Barboza and Schirman’s nursery.
“Usually, the bigger the business, the worse things are for the environment,” Barboza grins. “But for us, it’s the inverse. The bigger we get, the more we can help our island home.”
Web Extra: Five easy-to-grow Native Hawaiian landscaping plants
Hawaiian plant specialist Rick Barboza introduces five easy-to-grow Native Hawaiian plants for home landscaping.
Glossary: From native to endemic
Native plants arrived in Hawaiʻi via natural process, riding wind or wave currents or carried by migratory birds.
Species are indigenous when they are native to Hawaiʻi as well as elsewhere.
Evolving over time, they become endemic once differentiated into a species found only in Hawaiʻi.
Out of the islands’ 1,100 known native plant species, 90 percent are endemic.