Layman’s guide to the plants along the Pihea Trail

I’m calling it a layman’s guide not because of my readers, rather because I’m the humble layman. My very first post was about the birds easily spotted along the trail, it seems appropriate to finally talk about some of the flora on the Pihea Trail.

This will be a guide of the Pihea Trail to the spur of the Pihea vista. I’d say it takes about 3 hrs total round trip. The trail itself starts at the end of State Highway 550 at the 2nd Kalalau lookout. Here is a view of the trailhead looking back from about 1/2 mile in on the trail:

At the beginning, it really doesn’t look like a normal hiking trail. The first mile of the trail is actually a failed attempt at a road through the Alaka’i swamp. There are some changes in elevation so it isn’t quite the walk in the park, but overall, it is not too strenuous.

The early part of the trail is dominated by Ohia trees (Metrosideros sp.) and uluhe ferns (Dicranopteris linearis). Uluhe ferns are some of the few native plants that have done well after human habitat alteration. There are areas throughout the state were uluhe grows in thick stands.

Ohia seedlings on the trail

Ohia forests have been decimated pretty badly, but the trees themselves are good survivors. The dust-like seeds can disperse very well. Here, seedlings are growing right on the trail. While the trees can regenerate, it just takes them a long time to grow.

Keep an eye out for excellent views of the Kalalau valley:

There are some neat plants along the roadbed, but the real interesting stuff becomes more apparent after the proper foot trail begins about 1 mile in.

For the rest of the walk from the footpath to the vista, the understory seems to be dominated by 3 types of plants: citrus relatives in the genus Melicope, Clermontia faurei, and a member of the sunflower family Dubautia raillardioides.

A type of Melicope

Clermontia faurei

Dubautia raillardioides

Furthermore, there is a specific type of Melicope, M. anisata, that is found on the trail. Mokihana, as it is more commonly called, is well regarded because it gives off a very pleasant odor. The fruits, when strung together, are the lei of Kaua’i. Be careful when wearing one though; Mokihana leis have been know to cause skin irritation.

Mokihana fruit

Hydrageas are common garden plants and there is one endemic species in Hawai’i. Broussaisia arguta is also fairly easily seen on the trail after the end of the roadbed.

Native Hydragea: Broussaisia arguta

Here’s another oddity of island evolution. Catbriers (Smilax species) are known for being tangled, super thorny annoyances to hikers. Hoi kuahiwi (Smilax melastomifolia), the native catbrier however, has lost its defensive armaments. Now it’s just a pretty vine with glossy leaves.

Hoi Kuahiwi

Here is where the trail splits. Heading right takes you deeper into the Alaka’i swamp for another couple hours of hiking. Heading straight leads you to the vista. It is actually not much farther to the vista from that sign. The trail at this point though becomes a steep, usually muddy incline. It’s probably the most difficult stretch of the hike.

I wanted to get some decent shots for the top, but heavy clouds blocked all views. Weather on the trail can change very fast; bringing both rain and sun protection is wise.

If you see a plant with grass-like leaves and deep blue berries, that is one of the native Hawaiian lilies (Dianella sp.)

There are a couple nice specimens at the top. And, hopefully the weather at the top will be better for you than it was for me.

Well that is pretty much the end of it. I hope you enjoy walking the Pihea trail. It is one of the few trails in Hawai’i where the flora is predominantly native plants. There are many other native plants that I didn’t get to. perhaps next time I hike the area…

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