UH experts scramble to figure out what’s killing a popular tropical plant

Updated: Apr. 9, 2019 at 5:38 PM HST
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KAHALUU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Frustrated Oahu farmers are pleading for help in their attempt to figure out what’s killing off their ornamental ginger crops.

The plants are popular for landscaping and floral displays, and concerned growers have been reaching out to experts at the University of Hawaii for about 5 years as they try to get to the bottom of the problem.

The devastation has now spread to at least six farms in Windward Oahu, as well as other parts of the island. University researchers are asking state lawmakers for funding to help them pinpoint the source of the problem.

Experts have visited several farms and identified at least four different plant viruses, as well as about a dozen diseases in the soil.

“You have multiple viruses. They all have different features, and so each farm may have a different virus at that location, and they may have a different disease in the soil that’s affecting that plant at that location,” explained Jari Sugano, an extension agent at UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly what is causing the ginger to die off.

“In this case, different viruses, different combinations, induce different symptoms,” said John Hu, a professor in CTAHR’s Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences.

With no solution in sight, the owners of JC Farms of Hawaii in Kahaluu decided to switch to another crop. Their ginger plants experienced stunted growth, rotten roots, and streaks on the leaves and flowers.

“We were selling to our customers. They love our flowers. They’re beautiful and strong, so it was very frustrating to see our crops go down,” said farmer Dana Christiansen.

Experts are now trying to make sure that the problem doesn’t spread to other islands. A proposal approved by the full House on Tuesday would provide money to the university for research and prevention efforts.

“We’re concerned that if it does spread, and it does decimate our red ginger industry, that our florists will still want it and they may start importing it,” said Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau.

The original version of Senate Bill 752 requested $200,000 for the issue. A conference committee will need to agree on a single version of the measure and add an appropriation amount before it moves forward.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture said the research that the bill proposes to fund will help to determine if some type of quarantine order is needed.

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