The sprinklers in the hothouse sprayed a light drizzle over several benches of native Hawaiian plants on a recent day. To judge from no more than the shower and the assortment of plants presented, one could be transported to an all-but-inaccessible cliff on the steep pali of Kaua`i’s northern shore. Many of the species displayed were common to all the islands, but the Kaua`i tip-off would have been the Munroidendron racemosum and the even rarer Brighamia insignis.
Absent other clues, no one with a passing acquaintance of Hawai`i’s native plants would have guessed the actual but unlikely setting: the cavernous garden department of the Home Depot store in Hilo.
Both of the Kaua`i species are practically extinct in the wild, but, thanks to enterprising nurserymen, Home Depot’s decision to feature native Hawaiian plants – and to a change in Hawai`i’s laws some nine years ago – these and other endangered or rare native species are gracing back yards in Hilo, Kahului, Honolulu and other towns and cities across the archipelago.
The blessing of making native Hawaiian plants, especially those on the federal list of endangered species, as easy to buy as a 4-inch pot of New Guinea impatiens is decidedly mixed. Amateur gardeners and, increasingly, commercial landscapers are growing more discerning and sophisticated in their tastes. They are delighted by the ready availability of native plants that are rare or endangered in the wild.
At the same time, purists decry the potential for mixing up island strains of natives – say, having koa from the slopes of Mauna Kea being planted on Haleakala, or risking intermarriage of the Kaua`i Brighamia with its close relative on Moloka`i. Some botanists are worried that well-meaning but misguided members of the public might take it upon themselves to transplant nursery-grown stock to the wild, with no regard for where and under what circumstances the plants would naturally be found. Finally, and inevitably, the trade in endangered species leads to questions of how the plant stock has been obtained. With the growth in commercial demand for rare plants comes the risk that unscrupulous dealers will collect seed or stock from the wild, further imperiling plants already on the brink of extinction.
The Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources has rules to ensure that commercial growers have legitimate sources of their plant material and are not collecting plants or seeds from the wild without the proper permits. To let members of the public know that they are getting plants from a grower who is on the up-and-up, the state requires a tag, purchased from the DLNR, be attached to every single plant.
Back at the Hilo Home Depot, not one of the hundred-plus plants representing a half-dozen endangered Hawaiian species was tagged. And as for the worries of the purists, no one interviewed for this article believed there was any chance whatsoever that the horticulture industry would or could produce plants for market that would respect island borders, to say nothing of keeping Kona plants segregated from their Hilo cousins.
Before 1998, endangered plants only rarely came into the retail markets. State laws and regulations made it difficult for growers to cultivate endangered species without running afoul of the law. Thanks to a change in the laws and DLNR rules, a new system was developed that – in theory, at least – would allow the state to ensure that plants brought to market had been cultivated and were not taken from the wild or grown from wild-collected seed.
Key to the success of this system is the tag that should be attached to each and every plant sold. The tag reads, “I am an endangered species grown from cultivated stock. This label allows you to grow me in your garden. Do not plant me or my offspring outside your garden.” Growers buy tags from the Division of Forestry and Wildlife (at 4 cents each). Before selling the tags, the agency requires the grower to indicate the source of their nursery stock. A review of DLNR records show that more than 52,000 tags were sold between August 1998, soon after the current system took effect, and March 18, 2005, which is the last recorded entry for any tag sale. More than 90 percent of these were sold before 2003. In the last three years for which sales records are available (2003-March 2005), just 4,113 tags were sold – and in 2004, the number fell to just 100.
Vickie Caraway, the state’s chief botanist, told Environment Hawai`i that the sales of tags in a given year do not reflect the actual numbers of plants that came to market. Growers “probably realized that they could get more than 50 or 60 tags at a time, and so they decided to go for enough tags to last them a couple of years,” she said.
Caraway reviews each application for tags. Some receive greater scrutiny than others. For the most commonly sold and easily propagated plants, nursery stock is abundant. “If people can’t give me their source, I’m not too worried if it’s a hibiscus they want to sell,” she said. “But I do worry about the palm folks,” who, she added, often cannot provide names of sources that can be verified. “Palm seeds on Kaua`i are disappearing before Kaua`i DOFAW staff can collect them.”
On the whole, Caraway said she was “pleasantly surprised” at the commercial success of sales of threatened and endangered native plants. “The conservation community was concerned about mixing up species and the transfer of plants between islands,” she said. “So far, there hasn’t been much inter-island transfer.”
Still, she conceded: “I don’t know what the ‘Home Depot’ effect will be,” referring to the statewide sale by one large retailer of threatened and endangered plants. “People aren’t supposed to plant them in the wild. Some private landowners, though, who receive state funds for reforesting their land have included in their budget funds to purchase plants from Home Depot. We’re trying to educate them that this isn’t good conservation and, in addition, it’s not legal.”
View from the Benches
Most of the handful of native propagators polled by Environment Hawai`i tended to see the tag system as a means of educating the public, but viewed the state’s overall approach to saving endangered plants as ineffectual.
Kay Lynch of La`au Hawai`i, who grows native ferns, said that although her interactions with the state were limited – she grows only one endangered plant, Marsilea villosa – it seemed to her that “the handful of native plant sellers on O`ahu are following the regulations.” As to the tagging system, “it’s not a disadvantage to have to get the tags for the one endangered fern I sell. In fact, it creates a ‘teachable moment’ when the tag must be explained to a customer.”
Lynch said she knew of no poaching of wild plants by “trophy hunters.” “Generally, threatened and endangered plants are not showy and are hard to keep alive, and therefore probably not worth a poacher’s trouble.” A far greater threat to plants in the wild, she said, is “the escalating habitat destruction caused by pigs. The pig problem was bad enough, but it has exploded in the last couple of years and it is just criminal that nothing effective is being done to address it.
“Pig hunters can’t even control the pig problem at the very lowest elevations, let alone effectively protect the forest above. This problem is now far beyond their capacity to solve it.”
Michael DeMotta, with Waiola-Nani nursery in Hanapepe, Kaua`i, agreed that wild plant populations were more at risk from pigs and other non-native pests than from plant collectors. “I think the bigger concern is the feral animals and introduced insects,” he said. If the state is to make a concerned effort to save endangered plants, “it should be in-situ conservation and not who is selling what rare plant.”
Anna Palomino, of Ho`olawa Farms in Ha`iku, Maui, said she had had no trouble getting the required tags from the DLNR. The current system works to protect plants, generally, “as long as the applicant answers truthfully as to where the cultivated plants were obtained,” she said. But wild-collection of endangered and threatened plants continues to occur, she said. “I’ve known of two instances on Maui where endangered plants were harvested in the wild in a devastating manner… I’m not sure if any process in place is sufficient to protect wild stocks. Greedy and ignorant folks will find a way to seek and destroy, I’m sad to say.”
Dennis Kim of Native Plant Source, a wholesaler to the landscape trade, described the tag system as “a pain in the butt,” but agreed that it served an important public education aspect.
“The intent of identifying endangered species and informing the public is good,” he said. But he was critical of the state’s dealings with native plant propagators in the private sector. “The government has not helped me a bit in what I want to do – which is, basically, to be a part of saving the species,” he said. Endangered plants are grown and “die on the benches” in government greenhouses, he said, while native propagators who might have better luck in propagating the plants are not given the chance. “This protectionism doesn’t work sometimes.”
“Native propagators have made significant advances in terms of educating the public,” Kim said. “I’m proud of this, and it’s something you can see and you can quantify.” The number of different native species in cultivation today, as well as the volume of plants, “has increased exponentially over the last ten years,” he said. “Ten years ago, we had ten species growing for general landscaping. Now we have 150 available.”
The success has come despite the state, Kim said. “A lot of times government thinks they have to do everything themselves, and they become impotent. If they were to share and partner, it would probably be a better situation. I don’t care what they do, the private sector can always do it faster. We’ve proved that.”
Although commercial growers generally are not able to collect plant material from the wild, such collection does occur as part of the state’s efforts to protect and recover endangered species. The rules that were revised in 1997 to encourage commercial cultivation of endangered plants put in place a system for wild collection as well. Anyone wishing to collect endangered plants from the wild or repopulate wild populations with cultivated plants must obtain a license from DOFAW.
Most license-holders are botanical gardens, such as the National Tropical Botanical Garden, based on Kaua`i, the Lyon Arboretum, affiliated with the University of Hawai`i, or the Bishop Museum and its affiliate, the Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook, South Kona. According to Caraway, the licenses are good for just one year (except for the NTBG, whose license usually extends for two years) and are good only for identified species (that is, they do not allow collection of any species not called out on the license). “We have about 15 to 20 active permits,” Caraway said, while the number of applications is about twice that.
State rules require the licensees to report annually on plants that they have sold, given away, or donated. Like the commercial growers, licensees are required to purchase tags for threatened and endangered plants they sell and are supposed to submit to the DLNR each year a count of the plants that are donated or sold. Caraway said there is no standard form for such reports. As far as accounting for the plants sold, she said, most licensees don’t provide the annual accounting, although DLNR rules would seem to make that mandatory. She said that the purchase of tags is generally her way of keeping tabs on what is leaving the licensee’s nursery. State records on tags sold indicate that licensees often serve as the source of plant stock used by the commercial propagators.
A Wary Eye
Chipper Wichman, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua`i, views the sale of endangered species with mixed feelings. “The NTBG doesn’t sell any of its endangered species stock,” he told Environment Hawai`i. “We used to have plant sales, in the 1970s, but not now.”
“The intent of the law was to encourage commercial growers away from wild stock, to get their stock from legitimate collections and begin their own seed stock. Brighamia is a good example of this. If it’s properly pollinated, you can get a lot of seeds from one stock.
“The concern is, what is happening genetically? Where are these plants eventually going to end up? Back in the late 1980s and early 1980s, we got a large MacArthur Foundation grant and we used part of it to set up the Hawai`i Plant Conservation Center, which, among other things, gave away endangered plants to the public. Our belief then was that if you can engage the community, you’ll be much more effective in rallying support for better policies and practices, and maybe even better funding for the DLNR and so forth.
“That program raised some interesting issues – for example, a listed plant that we propagated and gave away was a white hibiscus, Hibiscus waimeae subspecies hannerae, which grows only in Limahuli, Hanakapiai, and one or two populations in Hanalei. What happens if someone takes one of these plants and grows it in Koke`e next to Hibiscus waimeae subsp. waimeae? Are you now going to begin messing with genetic integrity?
“By transporting these plants, putting them in areas where they would not naturally occur, we’re messing with an evolutionary process that has occurred over millions of years. I tend to be more of a purist. I wish labels on the plants or permits associated with selling them required at a minimum proper educational materials, so that people would know where it was appropriate to plant them.”
The Master Plan for Limahuli Garden and Preserve clearly spells out this policy. “To prevent the unintentional alteration of the existing native plant gene pools, all candidate plants should be researched to determine the chances of their being able to interbreed with the existing populations of native species existing in Limahuli Valley and surrounding areas.” At the same time, the plan acknowledges the difficulty of this task, noting “our knowledge of existing gene pools and their genetic variability (diversity) is very limited. Many Hawaiian species have become so depleted in numbers that these remnant populations may no longer contain a true representation of the genetic variability of a given species. It is not known if these depleted populations are undergoing genetic drift, that is, the random loss of low-frequency genes in depleted populations. In such cases, a remnant population of rare species might benefit from an infusion of new genes from a geographically different population. These genes could invigorate the depleted population and save it from extinction.”
The Palm Question
Much of the trade in endangered native plants occurs outside the DLNR’s jurisdiction. A quick search on the internet discloses dozens of vendors of Hawaiian plants. A Dutch nursery, for example, is selling Brighamia insignis – under the name Hawaiian Vulcan palm – with a portion of the proceeds going to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which governs the international trade in endangered species. According to Caraway, the IUCN has to date collected about $15,000 from sales of Brighamia; the funds will eventually be transferred to the state of Hawai`i to support its genetic safety net program (designed to help recovery of the plants at greatest risk of extinction).
Another internet search discloses dozens of vendors, in Hawai`i, elsewhere in the United States, and abroad, of Pritchardia seeds and plants. (Pritchardia is the only palm genus represented in Hawai`i’s native flora). And it is the palm collectors and palm fanciers, Caraway said, who have given her the most trouble. She recounted an incident that occurred on Kaua`i about six years ago, in which “whole inflorescences that had been bagged by DOFAW were stolen.” (The bagging is done to protect seeds while they ripen.)
More than other plants, palms seem especially vulnerable to illegal collection. The Federal Register of February 27, 2003, lists a number of instances involving Kaua`i palms: In 1993, DOFAW planted 39 Pritchardia napliensis in a fenced-off area near the Wailua River. A short time later, the fence was vandalized and all the palms had been stolen. In another instance, one of the mature wild plants was damaged by spiked boots worn by someone who scaled the trees to collect seeds. Ten years ago, again on Kaua`i, a young Pritchardia viscosa and its seeds were taken from the only known location of the species.
Wichman, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, told Environment Hawai`i of his organization’s frustration with illegal collectors. “There are just a handful – fewer than six – of Pritchardia viscosa trees that remain in the wild,” he said. “For years, our collectors have been monitoring plants and waiting for mature seeds. Invariably they’re beaten to the spot by people harvesting the seeds and growing them in a commercial setting – selling them commercially.
“A friend of mine … says that if someone pays something for a commodity, they’ll appreciate it more. So if you could propagate Pritchardia viscosa, then that would help perpetuate that plant. The argument may have some merit, but it raises genetic issues that I’m not sure we have answers for at this point.”
Caraway also took note of the fact that palm growers often claim that they are saving the palms from extinction. “In their view,” she said, “any time they’re selling a plant they’re conserving it, because they’re distributing it. It’s an interesting outlook, but I don’t agree with it. They’re conserving the plant for themselves and no one else.”
As to the argument that the illicit collectors are only taking seeds that would otherwise be lost – be eaten by rats or lost to other natural forces – Caraway disagrees. “To some extent, what they say may be true. But did they try to find out if anyone was going to take the seeds legally? Did they try to collect them legally? No, they just made the decision that they knew best.”
— Patricia Tummons
Volume 16, Number 10 April 2006