Alumni Growing Native Hawaiian Plants

April 23rd, 2010  |  by  |  Published in April 2010, Features, Multimedia  |  15 Comments

taro patches

The Hawaiian plant experts of Hui Kū Maoli Ola offer public education programs that introduce a variety of taro species

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.

Web extra: Five easy-to-grow Native Hawaiian landscaping plants

“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.

Rick Barboza and Matt Schirman

The idea for a native plant nursery took root after Rick Barboza, left, and Matt Schirman had trouble finding plants for their parents’ homes

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.

Back then, the only native plants Barboza and Schirman found for sale were at occasional Lyon Arboretum or Foster Botanical Garden events. Demand always exceeded supply.

“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.

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  1. TV’s Topsy Turvy Planter (Part 2 on day 30) says:

    April 24th, 2010at 4:52 am(#)

    [...] Childhood Friends Successfully Grow Native Hawaiian Plant Business | Malamalama, The Magazine of the… [...]

  2. Carol Flanagan says:

    April 24th, 2010at 8:36 pm(#)

    I’m excited and impressed that Rick & Matt are concentrating on native Hawaiian plants and have a successful business propagating and selling these gems. This is long overdue and I can’t wait to spread the word to my daughter and family living in the islands. I’ll be sure to visit on my next trip home from Oregon. Is there a book on native Hwaiiant plants in the works? It would be a best seller I’m sure. Good luck and continued success in your endeavor!

  3. Nani Barkley says:

    April 28th, 2010at 9:31 am(#)

    This is a response to Carol Flanagan’s comment. I have a book that is called, Plants of Old Hawaii by Lois Lucas. I purchased it a number of years ago at the Hawaii Volcanoes gift store. It was copyrighted in 1982 by The Bess Press.

    Like you, Carol, I love anything related to Old Hawaii. I am a kaamaina, native born and bred, but now reside in Tacoma, WA. I am excited about the work that Rick and Matt are doing to perpetuate the native plant species!

    Question for Rick & Matt: Do you have any hardy varieties of your plants that might survive in our agricultural zone (#8) here in the Puget Sound region of WA.? Since I am from Hawaii, I have landscaped my backyard to be a mini-island get-away–complete with waterfall and pond, gardenia, lilikoi (non-edible), hardy banana (no fruit), canna (remind me of ti), and two hardy varieties of palms. I am always looking for other varieties of plants and would love to be able to add some that are indigenous to the islands! Please respond! Mahalo nui!

  4. Pat Nitta says:

    April 28th, 2010at 10:40 am(#)

    Wow! I loved the video–hats off to you guys for doing what you’re doing! I have bought several Hawaiian plants from Home Depot, now I know where they come from. MAHALO

  5. Nancy Pollock says:

    April 28th, 2010at 1:41 pm(#)

    Congratulations on a great project. I have been working with the four species of taro as found across the Pacific, as key foods (kakana dina to Fijians).
    I would like to suggest that you might like to draw peoples’ attention to my book These Roots Remain (1992) published by Univ of Hawaii Press. I discuss the various elements of taro as a food source from first records by European voyagers in 1521 across Micronesia, central and eastern Pacific.

    Good luck for the growth of your project.

  6. Will Turner says:

    April 28th, 2010at 1:57 pm(#)

    Wonderful article and business.
    Grammar lesson: “they sold-out four truckloads” should be “they sold out four truckloads”. Phrasal verbs, such as “sold out” in this case, do not use hyphens.

  7. Traci Hansen says:

    April 28th, 2010at 1:58 pm(#)

    Hey Matt and Rick,

    Wow, Great job on the video! I even brought the kids around to learn about the native plants. We are living in Washington now and I remember when Matt was just starting his business. It’s nice to see the local boys keeping it real, keeping it native.

    Traci Hansen Kosaki

  8. Restoration Company: Hui Kū Maoli Ola says:

    April 29th, 2010at 8:10 am(#)

    [...] a lot about the importance of native plants to Hawaiian culture in this article: “Alumni Growing Native Hawaiian Plants,” by Brendan Sagara, Malamalama: The Magazine of the University of Hawaii, April [...]

  9. Aohoku says:

    April 29th, 2010at 9:19 am(#)

    I’ve known about Rick B. when he used to do the weekly newspaper article about native Hawaiian plants (something I wish he would reconsider starting up again). Since then, I’ve only bought plants from Home Depot, and only from the native Hawaiian section. The quality of the plants are exceptional & very hardy. Great job Rick & Matt; some guys doing something right for a change!

  10. Mele-girl says:

    April 29th, 2010at 12:42 pm(#)

    Waimanalo boyz rule!

  11. David says:

    April 29th, 2010at 9:02 pm(#)

    thee guys are the best

  12. Rick Barboza says:

    April 30th, 2010at 4:16 pm(#)

    Mahalo to everyone that has left us such wonderful comments! I can’t express how good that makes me feel! Mahalo NUI LOA! To reply back to various comments that people had:

    (Response to #2) A good book on native plants is Heidi Bornhorst’s book Growing Native Plants or Bruce Koebele and John Culliney’s book Growing a Native Hawaiian Garden. I’ve been meaning to compile a book of native plants and have it centered toward restoration and cultural uses of the plants and showing pictures of how they were used, just been really busy. You can also download our company catalog from our website There’s a ton of valuable information in there.

    (Response to #3) Unfortunately we don’t ship to the mainland. E kala mai.

    (Response to #9) Mahalo Aohoku for reading those articles. I would still love to do them to inform the public unfortunately the Honolulu Star Bulletin dropped the article when they switched to their new, smaller, format saying that there was not enough room for the “In the Garden” section

    (Response to #10) Yes Mele, Nalo Boyz Rule!!!

    Mahalo again to everyone and if you have any other questions feel free to contact me @ or at the nursery 235-6165

  13. Terry Belk says:

    May 2nd, 2010at 11:38 am(#)

    I saw your page when I followed a link in the “Big Island Selfsuficiency” group. While I was born in Wisconsin, I have lived on the Gulf coast in Mexico for over 47 years, and now am semi-retired and we live on our small ranch on a hill overlooking the Gulf.

    To keep busy I have started multiplying a lot of different native fruit plants and trees. Some of them are just barely mentioned on internet. I have said, almost joking, that I plan to start a nursery to sell these uncommon things, which are actually forgotten by the people here.

    The article about you fellows and your business has given me a good example of what can be done, and I have more confidence in my “idea”.

  14. Mel Iokepa says:

    May 13th, 2010at 4:19 pm(#)

    Glad I read the magazine Malamalama with your story of native plants. I currently have a potted lehua plant and now I know not to use to much water, I live in Hilo and we don’t get as much sun, would it be possible to use artifical lighting on the plant or should I just plant in the ground?

  15. Lucas Thompson says:

    June 20th, 2010at 10:22 pm(#)

    Thanks for the great information on this page. I work on a tropical flower farm in Hana, Maui and absolutely love growing and harvesting these beautiful flowers. I’m going to show the owner of the farm this page and see if we can grow some of these plants you’ve introduced in the video.