Hawaii’s rich collection of native and unique plant species has added a new member to its ranks – a new species has been described for the first time.
Currently, only one individual of the new species, called Cyanea heluensis, is known from a remote location in West Maui. While exploring Helu’s steep slopes above Lahaina, botanist Hank Oppenheimer and his colleague Jennifer Higashino found a single large plant in the deep shadow of a healthy ohi’a forest.
Cyanea heluensis is related to other native plants known as haha, but has unique leaves and long, gently curved white flowers. The flowers of this and related species are pollinated by birds, and the orange fruits are attractive to native fruit-eating birds that would disperse the seeds.
Since they were found, numerous studies using ropes to access steep cliffs have failed to locate more individuals, making conservation of the only known plant vital. Before a goat could eat the plant or another catastrophe caused immediate extinction, Hank Oppenheimer applied a special paste designed by Nellie Sugii, a horticulturist at the Lyon Arboretum, to produce new growth on the plant. The new growth was successfully transported to the Maui Olinda rare plant facility, where it is spreading.
Protections are urgently needed to keep rare wild plants like Cyanea heluensis alive. Rats are a common problem for rare Hawaii plants, as they can devour fruit before the seeds can disperse. Slugs eat flowers and young seedlings. Non-native hoofed animals like goats and deer, which roam millions of acres in Hawaii, will eat native plants and destroy the forest they need to survive.
Cyanea heluensis is one of 250 species managed by the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), a project of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit at the University of Hawaii. With financial support from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the DLNR, PEPP works to prevent the extinction of native Hawaiian plants. In the case of Cyanea heluensis, botanists returned on many trips to install shields and try to collect seeds that could be grown off-site.
“Dozens of native plants like this are now only kept alive in nurseries,” said Matthew Keir, botanist at DLNR. “A single natural disaster, like a hurricane, hitting a nursery could cause many rare plants to go extinct.”
DLNR is seeking funding for the Capital Improvement Project to build a protective fence to keep deer, goats and pigs out on thousands of acres in West Maui, including the last known Cyanea heluensis. This project is part of the State Watershed Initiative, which seeks to protect 30% of Hawaii’s native watershed forests by 2030.