Dedicated conservationists help save rare Hawaii plants

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A small group of dedicated conservationists is helping save Hawaii’s rare plants.

Hawaii is often referred to as the endangered species capital of the world, and according to state botanist Maggie Sporck-Koehler, “Hawaii’s flora is exceptionally unique with approximately 90 percent of flowering plants and 70 percent ferns found nowhere else on earth.”

Part of the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s ongoing plant conservation and habitat protection projects are the state-run plant nurseries where the rarest plant species are grown in the state’s mid-elevation rare plant facilities located on Hawaii island, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai.

Oahu district botanist Laura Reynolds said that “our native ecosystems are very unique, and at the same time, they’re also very vulnerable to disturbance by human activity and invasive species we’re all well-aware now.

“Hawaii has about 1,400 native plant species, and of those, most of them are unique to Hawaii. And over 30 percent are state and federally listed as threatened and endangered.”

Reynolds said that plant species have been identified that are either rare or endangered that are in need of management on state land. “And we’re doing quite a bit of work to identify those populations, and collect seeds for storage and growing plants, so I think we’re making really good progress.”

The state and its partners use state-propagated native plants to help restore natural areas on a large scale in the Nakula Natural Area Reserve and Kahikinui Forest Reserve on Maui. The leeward south slopes of Haleakala were once covered in koa-‘ohi’a montane forests and alpine shrublands but many years of impacts from feral ungulates and invasive plant species had resulted in the ecosystem being reduced to eroded grasslands with scattered trees.

Without trees to capture the moisture, streams which used to flow have dried up. Within Nakula, over 97 acres of the degraded land have been restored with over 64,000 Hawaiian native plants, subsequent to fencing and removal of feral cattle, goats, deer, and pigs.

In neighboring Kahikinui, another 50,000 native plants have been planted, with high levels of survivorship.

Several important native Hawaiian tree species (some examples of these are koa, mamane, wiliwili, ‘iliahi, naio, and kolea lau nui) as well as several native species of shrubs, vines, and herbaceous understory plants (e.g. ‘ilima, maiapilo, ‘u’ulei, pilo, ‘a’ali’i) have been successfully propagated and outplanted into highest priority restoration sites.

By reforesting degraded areas which have lost their native Hawaiian biodiversity of plants, this work will allow for their recovery, and also the recovery of the birds, snails, and other invertebrates that are native residents of these areas.

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