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When the Hawaiian Islands emerged from the sea as volcanoes, starting about five million years ago, they were far removed from other landmasses. Then, as blazing sunshine alternated with drenching rains, the harsh, barren surfaces of the black rocks slowly began to soften. Winds brought a variety of life-forms.
Spores light enough to float on the breezes were carried thousands of miles from more ancient lands and deposited at random across the bare mountain flanks. A few of these spores found a toehold on the dark, forbidding rocks and grew and began to work their transformation upon the land. Lichens were probably the first successful flora. These are not single individual plants; each one is a symbiotic combination of an alga and a fungus. The algae capture the sun's energy by photosynthesis and store it in organic molecules. The fungi absorb moisture and mineral salts from the rocks, passing these on in waste products that nourish algae. It is significant that the earliest living things that built communities on these islands are examples of symbiosis, a phenomenon that depends upon the close cooperation of two or more forms of life and a principle that is very important in island communities.
Lichens helped to speed the decomposition of the hard rock surfaces, preparing a soft bed of soil that was abundantly supplied with minerals that had been carried in the molten rock from the bowels of Earth. Now, other forms of life could take hold: ferns and mosses (two of the most ancient types of land plants) that flourish even in rock crevices. These plants propagate by producing spores–tiny fertilized cells that contain all the instructions for making a new plant–but the spore are unprotected by any outer coating and carry no supply of nutrient. Vast numbers of them fall on the ground beneath the mother plants. Sometimes they are carried farther afield by water or by wind. But only those few spores that settle down in very favorable locations can start new life; the vast majority fall on barren ground. By force of sheer numbers, however, the mosses and ferns reached Hawaii, survived, and multiplied. Some species developed great size, becoming tree ferns that even now grow in the Hawaiian forests.
Many millions of years after ferns evolved (but long before the Hawaiian Islands were born from the sea), another kind of flora evolved on Earth: the seed-bearing plants. This was a wonderful biological invention. The seed has an outer coating that surrounds the genetic material of the new plant, and inside this covering is a concentrated supply of nutrients. Thus the seed's chances of survival are greatly enhanced over those of the naked spore. One type of seed-bearing plant, the angiosperm, includes all forms of blooming vegetation. In the angiosperm the seeds are wrapped in an additional layer of covering. Some of these coats are hard–like the shell of a nut–for extra protection. Some are soft and tempting, like a peach or a cherry a cherry. In some angiosperms the seeds are equipped with gossamer wings, like the dandelion and milkweed seeds. These new characteristics offered better ways for the seed to move to new habitats. They could travel through the air, float in water, and lie dormant for many months.
Plants with large, buoyant seeds-like coconuts-drift on ocean currents and are washed up on the shores. Remarkably resistant to the vicissitudes of ocean travel, they can survive prolonged immersion in saltwater when they come to rest on warm beaches and the conditions are favorable, the seed coats soften. Nourished by their imported supply of nutrients, the young plants push out their roots and establish their place in the sun.
By means of these seeds, plants spread more widely to new locations, even to isolated islands like the Hawaiian archipelago, which lies more than 2,000 miles west of California and 3,500 miles east of Japan. The seeds of grasses, flowers, and blooming trees made the long trips to these islands. (Grasses are simple forms of angiosperms that bear their encapsulated seeds on long stalks.) In a surprisingly short time, angiosperms filled many of the land areas on Hawaii that had been bare.