The Flowering Plants of Hawaii
Part 64 Smilacaceae - Strelitziaceae - Taccaceae - Typhaceae - Xyridaceae
Smilacaceae, the cat brier or green brier family, consists of two genera, Smilax with about 350 species and Heterosmilax with a dozen, although some authorities would argue for one large genus (Mabberley, p. 802). Some reexamination of relationships in the family have occurred since publication of the Manual where we learned that there are a dozen family with about 325 species overall. The only Hawaiian member of the family is the endemic Smilax melastomifolia (see images), known in the islands as hoi kuahiwi, aka'awa, uhi, ulehihi, and, on Kaua'i, pi'oi.
This climber can be recognized by its glossy, green or sometimes pigmented, heart-shaped leaves, with venation resembling members of the Melastomataceae (prominent midvein with equally prominent parallel secondary veins. The lianas have recurved, hook-like prickles that allow them to 'climb' into the lower branches of trees. Smilax is common in wet forest in Kaua'i, and can easily can be seen along the boardwalk portion of the Pihea Trail. I have also seen this plant snaking its way over low lying tussocks in the Pëpë'öpae Bog on Moloka'i, and climbing amongst the trees in the vicinity of the Thurston Lava Tube in Hawai'i Volcano National Park. Unlike North American briers, the Hawaiian cat brier is quite well behaved with only a few prickles.
Strelitziaceae are not listed in the Manual but two of its representatives have been extensively planted on the Hawaiian Islands, one of which would be immediately recognized. There are three genera in the family, Strelitzia, with four or five species native to South Africa one of which is the familiar bird-of-paradise, S. reginae (Strelitzia.jpg); Ravenala madagascariensis, the only member of the genus and a native of Madagascar, commonly known as the traveler’s palm (see image); and Phenakospermum, a tropical South American genus with a single species, P. guyanense, known as the "big palulu." I have only seen pictures of big palulu but its flowers are unmistakably bird-of-paradise like. Some authorities have placed members of this family within the banana family, Musaceae.
Taccaceae consist of a single genus, Tacca, with 10 species native to Old World tropics. Tacca leontopodioides (see image), is the only member of this small family present on the Hawaiian Islands, a presence we can credit to the Polynesian colonists. Pia, or Polynesian arrowroot, was cultivated for its tubers which provided a starch in times of drought. After grating, the mass was washed repeatedly to remove undesirable bitter components. The starch was then mixed with coconut milk and the batter either boiled or baked (Manual). This plant has been cultivated commercially in the tropics as a source of arrowroot starch.
The cattail family, Typhaceae, has two representatives in the islands, Typha domingensis and T. latifolia, both of which are naturalized in low, marshy sites on O'ahu and Kaua'i. The latter species is the common cattail that occurs widely in the Old World and in North America (see image).
Two species of Xyris , commonly known as yellow-eyed grass, have become naturalized locally, X. complanata on the Big Island and Kaua'i, and X. platylepis on the former. The latter species has found use in cut flower arrangements and has escaped from cultivation. I have not been able to find an image of either.