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Precious Petals

10 May 2005
Rare Hawaiian hibiscus saved

In an era when news about native Hawaiian species tends to be dismal or downright tragic, a rare glimpse of gold on the lava heaps of Puu-o-Kali last week was a time to rejoice.

For the first time in more than a decade, the endangered native yellow hibiscus, the state flower known as Pua aloalo has bloomed on the slopes of Haleakala, one of only two places on Maui where the plant is known to grow in its natural environment.

Once decimated by grazing animals and feared to be forever lost, the Puu-o-Kali hibiscus was brought back from the brink only because of the efforts of dozens of hands who heard of the plight of the plant.

"Getting these genes back in the lava is a pretty good feeling," said Art Medeiros, the research biologist who has headed up the restoration of Puu-o-Kali, the last diverse native Hawaiian ecosystem left on the island?s south side. "There's big yellow flowers everywhere. They're thriving, the Hawaiian word is uluwehi, all over the lava."

There will be no public visits, said Medeiros as he announced the first sight of the blooms on Wednesday. Because Puu-o-Kali ("Hill of Waiting") contains some of the roughest, hottest and driest land around (there's no water), only a few extremely fit individuals are allowed to help with volunteer projects there.

For the rest of us, a picture and the satisfaction that a precious piece of Maui has been restored to its original natural state will have to suffice.

"There's something really wonderful about seeing this plant back in the wild," said Medeiros. "It's one thing to have them in gardens, but to have them in the wild is what it's all about. It's like they're home."

The native yellow hibiscus, one of the rarest hibiscus in the world, was believed to have been recorded in the 1860s by William Hillebrand, an early pioneer in Hawaiian botany, who described the flowers growing on a "brown hill" on Haleakala. Medeiros is convinced that's the red cinder cone of Puu-o-Kali.

In recent times, the habitat was buried behind a wall of kiawe, a lost treasure that wasn't rediscovered until about 30 years ago when state forester Bob Hobdy was driving along the Kula Highway during a wet winter. Hobdy was looking down toward Kihei when he noticed a strip of green that was different from kiawe green. A few years later, Hobdy came upon the habitat in person and was stunned to see a diverse native forest sprouting out of the lava.

The hidden ecosystem also included the last intact native wiliwili forest in Hawaii, which makes it the last such forest on Earth, along with the seldom seen state flower. Two years ago, the 236 acres were fenced to keep out deer and give the native plants a chance to come back.

"Puu-o-Kali is the only place on this whole side that looks like it did in ancient times," said Medeiros. "It's the only place where a Hawaiian from long ago would look around and say, "Oh, I know where I am." They wouldn't recognize the rest of South Maui."

The new Puu-o-Kali hibiscus are true descendants of the land, "genetically correct," as Medeiros likes to say. Before the deer obliterated the few plants still surviving, seeds were gathered and stored at the National Tropical Botanical Gardens on Kauai. One of Medeiros colleagues, Kua Rogoff, felt compelled to pull up the last three seedlings for transplantation in a safer place.

Those plants and seeds were turned over to Tamara Nelson of the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens and Anna Palomino of Hoaolawa Farms. Shortly after the fence was in place, the juvenile hibiscus were returned to the place of their ancestors, and after a little watering by hand to give them a head start , were left to fend for themselves.

"They've only been fed by Kona rains," said Medeiros. "We felt if they were going to survive in the wild, they had to do it on their own. I can't be out at Puu-o-Kali for more than a couple of hours and I'm parched. But this is their home."

The only other known population of native yellow hibiscus on Maui is on the west side.

Medeiros said the blooms occurred only because of an extensive partnership that included the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; Goodfellow Bros. Inc.; Hoaolawa Farms; Maui Nui Botanical Gardens; the Maui Restoration Group; Olino; the Tri-Isle Resource Conservation and Development Council; and many volunteers.

Spiritual guidance that kept everyone together was provided by Rene Sylva, the native Hawaiian plant expert who has been responsible for the revival of so many endangered species.

"There are so many heroes in this," said Medeiros. "So many people wanted to give when they heard the heart of the matter. To me, that's what still makes Maui special."

And that's why "a nearly extinct color has been added to the palette of the ancient world that Hawaiians on Haleakala first discovered," said Medeiros.

It's the color of hope in the wild.


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