Native Intelligence: Maui

New Day for the Nā‘ū

Story by Noel Nicholas. Photos by Sue Hudelson.

The first time you see a nā‘ū, you might have no idea what you’re looking at. You could easily mistake it for tiare, the Tahitian gardenia, but nā‘ū (Gardenia brighamii) is unique to Hawai‘i—and nearly extinct in the wild. The endemic Hawaiian gardenia has small, paper-thin light green leaves and diminutive, pinwheeling white blossoms with a hint of coconut in their scent. The nā‘ū, also called nānū, has been making a comeback, and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

Once common on all the major islands, fewer than fifteen nā‘ū remain in the wild, all of them on O‘ahu and Lāna‘i. But visit any native plant enthusiast’s backyard and you’re almost certain to find one. “More people are requesting native plants in their landscaping, so there are probably more nā‘ū in the ground today than ever before,” says Rick Barboza, co-owner of Hui Kū Maoli Ola nursery in Kāne‘ohe.

In 2000 Bruce Koebele of Ka‘ala Farms gave Barboza a large yellow nā‘ū fruit from one of the last wild plants on O‘ahu. Along with it came a challenge: Raise as many healthy nā‘ū as possible, Koebele said, andhelp to ensure the survival of the species. Barboza did not take that kuleana (responsibility) lightly. “We’ve propagated over ten thousand of the gardenias, and if most of them are alive today, then we’ve done something worthwhile.”

The value lies in rescuing not only an endemic but also a culturally significant plant. “Nā‘ū has a nice, white wood that was valuable in ancient times,” says Barboza; it was used mostly for ornate house posts marking the residences of high-ranking ali‘i (chiefs). It was also used to make anvils for beating kapa (bark cloth). Nā‘ū flowers were often strung into lei, and the fruit provided a rich sunset-yellow dye used to decorate kapa. That color inspired one of the sweetest traditions associated with nā‘ū: Children in ancient times would yell “nā‘ū!” as the sun touched the horizon, sustaining the “u” sound as long as possible, pretending that the sun wouldn’t set for as long as they could hold the note. With a little luck and the hard work of specialists like Barboza, the nā‘ū will be around for many sunsets to come.

Story by Noel Nicholas. Photos by Sue Hudelson