Central and South America

Central and South America The Central and South American floral area includes the vast Amazonian rain forest, the savannahs of Argentina, the high plains of the Andes, the coastal jungles of the Caribbean, and the deserts of Chile, Peru and Mexico. The number of plant species in this range of habitats is so great that botanists have no actual count! There are important edible, medicinal, and economic plants in Central and South America, but vast areas are being destroyed by man’s search for timber and natural resources such as gold and oil. New roads are opening remote areas for colonization, and primary forests are being shortsightedly cleared for cattle ranches. Entire plant communities are being disrupted and large numbers of species are rapidly dying out before they can be studied. Chocolate, vanilla, peppers, rubber, tomatoes, and potatoes all come from this part of the world. Botanists are racing against time to study equally promising but little known plants facing extinction. Among them are medicinal and shamanic plants used by native cultures, nutritious food crops that can tolerate drought and poor soils, and trees that yield sap like diesel oil.

Fiji Flora

The islands of Fiji lie about two-thirds of the way from Hawai'i to New Zealand. There are about 500 named islands, rocks, and atolls with a total land area of more than 7,000 square miles. The two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, account for 87% of the land area. Around 100 of the islands are inhabited. Most of the people are either the original Melanesians or descendants of plantation workers brought from India 100 years ago. Most of the islands are volcanic and mountainous but some are low limestone or coral formations. There is a tremendous diversity of climatic zones, soil types, and elevations resulting in very different floral habitats. Like Hawai'i, the islands are isolated from large land masses and unique flora and fauna have evolved, which can be found nowhere else. Many are already threatened by the burgeoning human population.


Mariana Islands Guam is the largest and southernmost island in the Marianas chain. It lies almost 3,500 miles southwest of Hawai‘i. The flora of Guam consists of about 350 native species including ferns, flowering plants and one type of cone-bearing tree. At least 50 of these native species are endangered or threatened, in recent decades by the impact of the brown tree snake, Buigus irregularis, which invaded the island from New Guinea causing bird and insect extinctions which are now having a devastating effect on Guam's flora. There are two distinct types of soil on Guam and certain species can survive only in one soil type. The northern half of the island supports mixed vegetation and consists of a raised limestone plateau and wave cut terraces. The southern half is covered with deeply weathered volcanic clay, which supports mostly native grasses and a few small shrubs.

Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island lies near the midpoint between Sydney, Australia and the northern tip of New Zealand. This narrow seven-mile strip of land with a few neighboring islets is an important nesting area for migrating birds. A large part of Lord Howe Island is now a nature reserve. Like most isolated islands, a unique flora has evolved, which is endemic to the area (i.e. found nowhere else). Although some destructive animals such as rats, goats, and pigs have been introduced, the endemic flora and fauna is largely unspoiled, and so the island is of great importance to both scientists and nature lovers. Apart from two species of lowland palm (Howea), the plant life is little known outside the island, and this garden is an attempt to bring into cultivation some of these fascinating and unique plants.


Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, broke away from the African continent 105 million years ago, and the flora and fauna that have evolved in its isolation are among the most remarkable in the world. It is second only to Hawai'i in its rate of endemism, the occurrence of species found nowhere else. New plant species are found every year in the dwindling eastern forests, today less than a third of their original size. Unique families of swollen spiny plants, unrelated to cactus, dominate the dry central plateau. Tragically, much of the flora is being lost to firewood collecting. The country’s severe overpopulation and poverty have made conservation of its priceless botanical wealth almost impossible. An intensive international rescue effort led by the World Wildlife Fund is underway.

Mascarene Islands

Thanks to Dr. David Lorence of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua'i, Waimea has one of the best collections in the world of plants from these remote islands. Dr. Lorence sent seeds and plants to our nursery since the 1970s. The two main islands Mauritius and Reunion are located about 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The isolated position of these islands has produced unique forms of both plant and animal life, but the islands have suffered from the ravages of introduced animals (mainly goats) and from land clearance for tourist and agricultural purposes. Most of the plant and animal life depended on undisturbed habitats and are now facing extinction. Some of the rarest and most unusual plants in the world are found on these islands. A characteristic of many species is the presence of two distinct leaf shapes on the same plant (called heterophylly). This is especially noticeable in the hibiscus on these islands.

Ogasawara Islands

This remote group of about 31 islands and rocks, located 600 miles south/southwest of Tokyo are at about the same latitude as Hawai'i. Students of Hawaiian evolutionary botany learn much from the similar flora of the (almost uninhabited) Ogasawara Bonin Islands. The climate is comparable to the lowlands of Hawai'i but with a rainy season from April to July. There are some similarities in flora, including 26 species from the Ogasawara Islands, which have relatives within the Hawaiian flora. The location of the islands provides an interesting mixture of temperate Asian and tropical Pacific plants. There are nearly 400 species and 46 percent are endemic, meaning they are not found elsewhere in the world. There were many unsuccessful attempts to colonize the islands since the mid-16th century. In 1830, a ship from Hawai'i landed a crew of 20 Hawaiians and 7 Europeans, where they settled under the British flag. Descendants of these Hawaiians spoke an old form of the language and were still building double-hulled sailing canoes when they were rediscovered at the start of WWII.

Pacific Islands

Scattered across the vast Pacific Ocean, uninhabited isolated islands allowed plants to evolve in strange and wondrous ways. Rapid geological changes from volcanic activity, storms, and tsunami were as effective as the shower of forces of erosion, coral accretion, and sea level change in shaping these often ephemeral land masses. On most islands, prevailing winds account for widely varying climatic zone. The Marquesas Islands and French Polynesia are ancestral homes to the voyages who found and populated Hawai'i. Some of the oldest flowering plants in the world are found in Fiji. As human traffic spreads to still-pristine Pacific habitats it is important to protect what remains. Aside from all of our Hawaiian gardens, four other collections at Waimea Valley focus on Pacific plants from Fiji, Guam, Lord Howe Island and the Ogasawara Islands.


The Seychelles are group of 115 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean about 600 miles northeast of Madagascar. The remote granitic archipelago was one of the last tropical places in the world to be discovered and colonized. The total land area is only 175 miles, but a rich endemic flora includes the fabled coco-de-mer, the strange palm with the largest seed in the plant kingdom. Several wild-collected endemic Pandanus species are fruiting at Waimea, and you can see the bizarre, spiny Verschaffeltia palm supported by diagonal stilt roots at its trunk tapers to nothing. Of all the island groups in the world, the Seychelles have had the longest continuous era of plant immigration and evolution before the first human settlements in the 1770’s. This collection is only a fraction of the 90 or so plants unique to the Seychelles. All were grown from seeds or cuttings collected from the wild areas of the islands and sent to Waimea Valley.

Sri Lanka

The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka was once connected in ancient times by a land bridge to the subcontinent of India. Formerly named Ceylon, the island was a crossroad for centuries in the spice trade with the Far East. The earliest myths refer to it as “the land of Serendip”. At one time it was a powerful Buddhist center of learning that sent missionaries as far as Japan. With so much cultural exchange, many exotic plants of ethnobotanic importance have been introduced into cultivation such as tea, fruit, spices, timber, and a vast number of medicinal plants. Many of the lowland flora are similar to those found in India. However, threatened, endemic flora remain in the central highlands, now largely given over to tea plantations. Some of the plants in this collection have grown from seeds and cuttings collected from the 170 year old Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.