Permaculture as a Method for Ecological Healing:
Maui Case Study with Native Plants and Stream Restoration.
Photography by Jasmine A Koster
It may not seem readily apparent when viewing scenic photos, or strolling along the beach shoreline if you’ve been there, but something like 90% of Hawaii’s species are invasive. In other words, a species had no chance of getting to these isolated islands–and adapting to its new environment to become a new species over time–unless it could swim, fly, crawl out of the water, or hitch a ride on something else that could do so.
But first, we should talk about the difference between invasive species, native species, and endemic species.
Endemic species are those who evolve alongside other species gradually, to develop symbiotic relationships and interdependence with other species within its climate. They are oftentimes found solely in niche ecosystems, dependent on the unique conditions of that unique region.
Native species are those brought to a region by human cultures as they roamed and settled long ago, and have long adapted to the climates they are known to be, well, natives to. The relevance of native plants to the indigenous culture is that they are generally central to its politics, and integral to the culture and social structure.
One may be wondering how native species and invasive species vary if, indeed, there are examples of both that are culturally important, both historically and today. The difference lies in the careful balance the ecosystem maintains.
Invasive species generally take over the landscape quickly and choke out other species, leading to a stark imbalance and deprivation of species that are critical to the life systems of other species. They tend to share characteristics such as adaptability to change, hardiness, dominance, and a prolific method of spreading and exponifying their numbers. They also tend to show up uninvited where humans have disturbed and modified the landscape–roadsides, parking lots, your lawn, etc.
Even earthworms–yes, earthworms–are invasive to the Hawaiian islands. The beloved, benevolent soil builders actually do more harm than good here.
I learned this and more while pulling invasive weeds at the Hawaii Nature Center on Maui. We pulled two species–pothos and guinnea grass.
Pothos is a vine–I previously noticed this one and wondered if it was invasive because of the way it not only walks horizontally across the ground, but then climbs up trees until you can barely see the trunk, if at all. Pothos suffocates trees while parasitically leeching their nutrients. It also shades out native trees attempting to establish in the understory. It’s a houseplant that doesn’t become invasive in areas which experience winter freezing. However, Hawaii is balmy year round.
When grown indoors, it stays in its juvenile stage, likely because it doesn’t have much room or the superfluous levels of nutrients available in Hawaii that enable it to spread with such vigor. In tropical climates, it progresses to the adult stage where the leaves broaden and the stem thickens. To give you an idea, some of the leaves winding around tree trunks were bigger than my head and we needed sharp cutting tools, and plenty of elbow grease, to slice through the stems.
Guinnea grass is a native of Africa, Yemen and Palestine, but has been introduced to tropical areas around the world. Why? Guinea grass makes excellent hay for dairy and beef production. Due to high productivity and little threat of pests, it’s become a popular option that is impossible to control outside the farm boundaries.
What makes it especially insidious is that it spreads two ways. Birds consume the seeds and carry them to new locations, and the thick, perennial root bed pushes itself into new territory year after year. The roots are skinny and seem insubstantial, though in bulk they form a mat. This mat suffocates and furthermore prevents other plants from taking root. The real problem, though, lies in the tuber at the base of the grass–and this solid chunk of root is what brings it back year after year.
Native and Endemic Species
Some good news is that through the muddy stream bed, we observed a little taro plant rising humbly. Yes, just one–but clearing the area will give it room to spread. Taro is a staple to Hawaiian diet, culture, politics, and spirituality. According to Hawaii History, “So important was taro for Hawaiians’ survival and prosperity that it was considered an elder sibling to the Hawaiian race.” From a cultural, political and ecological standpoint, it is critical this plant has a chance to re-establish.
I also sidestepped happy members of an endemic species of fern, triumphantly unfurling from the underbrush. What I found most interesting was the revelation that through all of this, the invasive plants, earthworms, and other species even changed the soil composition to best suit their needs. This meant the soil type would have to be restored as well, slowly, and with care.
We planted Bacopa, a native plant known as ‘ae’ ae by the native Hawaiian Polynesians of the area. Because of the altered soil composition (due to invasive species) it would need to be “nursed along” for a while until enough generations had passed that it established its own ecosystem of microflora. Luckily, ‘ae ‘ae or Bacopa takes to the mud like, well, it was meant to be there. As long as stems of it, with or without roots attached, touch the watery stream bed, it’s sure to recognize its home and dig in.
You may be wondering how this relates to permaculture.
As we pulled out the weeds it became clear that more needed to be done than planting native species and amending the soil over time. Two springs converged here to feed a stream which is a water source for humans as well as wildlife in the valley. Due to heavy foot traffic and the invasives’ pernicious monoculture along the bank, a deep, muddy puddle had formed where water was stagnating and flooding onto the path. We took a practical permaculture-minded solution to the problem.
Guiding the Stream
A community member showed up who knew about this process and helped us out. We installed a piece of piping, intended to redirect the water flow and built a mote to channel the water under the path and dry up the puddle a little. Basically we dug a hollow into the mud, made a little bed for the pipe, and created a path over that with mud and rocks. We also hollowed out the channel where the springs converged to allow leeway for rainfall and prevent the stream from flooding the paths in the future.
On the other side of the pipe we pretty much just tossed the ‘ae ‘ae or Bacopa into the mud–I revisited the site less than two days later and it had begun to establish itself and face its leaves to the sun. I was astonished at how rapidly this occurred and that it occurred at all considering many of the stems were rootless.
Permaculture as a Vessel for Healing
I contemplated permaculturist’s role in healing the earth’s ecosystems while feeding and engaging the community in the production of local, healthful produce. I was raised with land stewardship as an integral value, and many, many times pulled weeds as a youth.
With an ecosystem as fragile as Hawaii’s, I reasoned, a true demonstration of stewardship could be one of not just capturing water, growing food in harmony with the land, and observing closely; but also, of environmental restoration.
The foods we eat are shipped from all over the world and have been for millennia. Mexico. Canada. The United States. Latin America. Africa. So many familiar, modern foods were once foreign and both regionally and culturally distinct. However, less often dined on varieties are nonetheless chock full of nutrients and their medicinal benefits may surprise you.
Of course, you may not live in Hawaii, but just for example consider this list of the known medicinal benefits of Hawaii’s indigenous plants. According to the paper, “While the original settlers of Hawaii undoubtedly brought many important food and medicinal plants along with them, for instance the coconut (Cocos nucifera), the “ti” or “ki” (Cordyline terminalis), and the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), they also learned to utilize the native flora.” Anyone can easily do a similar online search or visit their library to find information on native and endemic species and their uses.
Why not plant endemic and native varieties of plants as well as your favorite non-natives? Why not do a background check on the invasive potential of the species you’re considering, and then consider a safer option? Not only can this qualify as environmental restoration, but as an exploration into the heritage of the area–a true healing of the ecosystem. What better way to create habitat that may preserve endangered endemic species, while cultivating resilient communities centered around permaculture values.