Can Hawaiian Native Plants and Agriculture Co-exist?

Last November I questioned the idea: In Hawaii, where many native plants are endangered, or under threat, can I help the three varieties of native plants that exist on the farm property to thrive, while also benefiting squash production?  The answer ended up being a clear yes.

As we know, squash need a lot of everything: sun, water, compost, bees, the works. So instead of using non-native plantings to attract more bees, what if I studied the nature of the abundantly flowered native Ilima shrub and tried to work out a system where each would benefit?  The result : The Ilima Project.

Ilima is special, it is a hardy shrub that has struggled in the past 17 years as the Ka’u desert has extended it’s Northern border.  I found several of these native plants, and decided to be their caregiver by not pulling them up, and planting around them instead.  It created a perfect companion plant for the squash, while also nurturing a plant that many of the elders noted that “it used to be everywhere,” much like local kabocha squash.  I decided these two could stage a comeback together.  The Ilima thrived and it was most grateful for any bit of water or compost that it is offered.

I read in the excellent Bishop Museum Book, “Native Planters of Old Hawaii,” that the Ilima plant was often pruned heavily so to create even more buttercup like blooms for lei making. Though we often search specifically for the crop that we farm, here we can see how a regional and historical book can assist in modern farming, by applying this information that can assist with pollination. The fast growing shrub was tolerant of my experimental no-till techniques, and the bees plunged into bloom after bloom and pollinated the squash as well. The smaller blooms attracted many new bees and beneficial wasps that were “new” to the farm. The Ilima thrived, and created helpful pollination assists, as well as wind blocks for the squash that really doesn’t care for wind.

No-till using Ilima as a companion

success!  Growing squash with the Native Hawaiian Ilima plant
Success! Growing squash with the Native Hawaiian Ilima plant

As for the squash, they were happy too, as they climbed up and around the Ilima shrubs and across the no-till cardboard mulch. I grew out one of the world’s rare squash for seed preservation (the bright orange one from Armenia, C. pepo in the photo) along with my go to Hawaiian heirloom squash for the community, a Long of Naples, a grey ‘Crown’ squash that originated in South Africa, and also many lovely Thai squash (C.moschata.)

I am just adding compost to the beds so to have a late summer crop. The Ilima shrubs (seen in the rear of the wheelbarrow photo) are continuing to thrive.

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