31 October 2011


Schidea kaalae

...sidetracked by plants.  Settling back into life in Hawaii and while most my days are spent writing about Arnhem Land and savanna fires, there are plenty of distractions to be had here - plenty of opportunities to get back into the mountains.

the Ko'olau

Learning your plants in Hawaii is different...it is arguably the world's most eccentric flora.  This is largely a result of the islands' radical isolation from the rest of the continental land masses.  Beyond having one of the world's highest rates of species endemism, the plants here have evolved into magnificently unique forms... California tarweeds to the agave-like silverswords on the larger volcanoes, delicate violets from the Arctic gained woody stems (protection from maurauding flightless geese?), nursery bellflowers to tufted shrubs imagined by Dr. Seuss.

The plant ID skills you pick up here may be irrelevant elsewhere in the world, but there's no doubt that understanding Hawaiian botany alters one's perception of the place.  Finding native plants usually involves a good climb up the mountain, literally into a different world.  Unfortunately, very quickly along the way, one realizes that native plants are alarmingly scarce.

Cyrtandra paludosa

Its not for a lack of greenery.  Hawaii has an amazing amount of forest cover - from state and national parks to Honolulu suburbs where folks' yards back up into rain forest and dryland scrub.  Unfortunately the vast vast majority of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses - even birds - that one encounters in Hawaii's lowlands are weeds.  Released from more ecologically "aggressive" communities on the continents, these introduced species are competitively superior to native plants and have drastically transformed local ecosystems.  Compound this with introduced rats, pigs, insects, extinctions of native birds and undocumented declines of who-knows-how-many invertebrates - all disrupting the processes of pollination, seed dispersal and plant regeneration.  The result has been a dramatic and continual contraction of native forest higher up into the mountains and into smaller, more isolated patches in the lowlands.

The Oahu PEPP gals with Cyanea truncata - a species down to single digits in the wild

The description is simplistic - only because the actual system is enormously complicated - but this is the general state of Hawaiian native ecosystems.  The more gritty details just get, well, grittier.  The rarest of Hawaiian plants are so critically endangered that a state-wide program has been developed solely for their conservation.  The Plant Extinction Prevention Program's (PEPP) focus is species with wild populations numbering 50 individuals or less.  Think about that quantity for half a minute.  Then consider that on each island, there are likely 50-60+ species classified as "PEPPs".

The brighter side is that connecting with native plants and learning their story brings a lot of people to action. Organizations like PEPP, the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Army Natural Resources, the Hawaiian Association of Watershed Partnerships, the Nature Conservancy, many state agencies and more provide opportunities for folks to volunteer and even get paid to work at restoring the forests here.

 Cyanea truncata flowers - note the Drosophila fruit flies on the left - another Hawaiian species group that has radically diversified

Before heading to Tasmania, both my wife and myself had field jobs here in Hawaii.  And now that we're back, Talia's picked it right up again, working for Oahu PEPP.  So in between bouts of computer-induced madness (I am paying, one word at time, for all the fun in Arnhem Land), I get to tag along on some good walks, work out the machete on some bad weeds, and decompress in the forest.

Friends from Kualoa ranch wander down a drainage of decent native forest

Is it a losing battle?  It can be difficult to be optimistic counting plant populations in single digits.  But the conservation community here in Hawaii is growing by leaps and bounds...more energy, more ideas and more people learning, telling and changing the story.

 fortunately not everything's endangered - Peperomia oahuensis (?)

Charpentiera obovata 

 another PEPP - Schidea kaalae - tough flowers to shoot

(and happy halloween)


Christopher Cummings said...

looks nice, warm and humid.

Karisia_Safaris said...

Kerry I and the twins are most certainly coming to visit. have you left tasmania forever. we were quite keen to visit there as well....