PODCAST: Researchers rediscover a Hawaii plant they thought had gone extinct

Delissea argutidentata
Delissea argutidentata(Jacob Chinn | Kamehameha Schools)
Published: Nov. 3, 2022 at 11:07 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 4, 2022 at 11:38 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Once thought to have been extinct in the wild, a rare native plant has been rediscovered in the remote forests of Hawaii Island.

The plant known as delissea argutidentata reappeared in a volcanic crater over 50 years later in an area where it was thought to have been gone forever.

With Hawaii often known as the Endangered Species Capital of the World, this is a big win for conservationists and it also hints at what this could mean for the future of the islands’ ecosystems.

It begs the question of whether there might be other species out there that are still alive.

But for now, it’s all hands on deck to ensure this plant is protected and continues to thrive.

While the plant was found back in 2021, a group made up of members from Kamehameha Schools, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Three Mountain Alliance recently planted 30 newly-propagated keiki plants back in the wild.

The keiki plants were grown from seedlings collected from the newly-found delissea.

Kallie Barnes, a propagation field technician with Three Mountain Alliance, took part in the exhibition and was actually the one who found this rare plant growing on KS land in a remote section of mauka Kona.

She along with Kamehameha Schools Senior Natural Resources Manager Nāmaka Whitehead spoke with HNN on the ninth episode of “Repairing Earth” to explain the importance of this discovery and the work that’s being done to protect it.

“I wasn’t thinking about finding any special or rare plant,” Barnes said.

“I was really just on a mission for seeds. And in my search for seeds, I came across this area where there were a few old, kind of broken down, fenced enclosures. So I looked a little more closely and I saw this plant. It looked like a Hawaiian lobelia to me, but I wasn’t sure of the exact species, and I wasn’t really aware of what I had found either.”

She then collected some of the seeds and took pictures of the small population, sending them to the plant experts. That’s when its identity was confirmed — delissea argutidentata.

While this plant is mainly referred to by its scientific name, Whitehead said she has one of her interns searching through historical records to see if they can find a name.

Botanists said the plant could have been descriptively known as hāhā kiʻekiʻe (tall hāhā) as the plant’s extremely tall, unbranched form is very similar to plants in the related genus Cyanea (hāhā).

“It’s such a unique plant that it seems there must be a name out there,” she said.

Of the 16 recognized species of delissea, 14 are extinct and the remaining two are endangered.

“It’s still not sinking in. You know, it’s just such a rare thing to have happen that it’s kind of hard to explain how I’m feeling,” Barnes said.

“What I’m really appreciating about this is that it’s bringing so much attention to conservation and the efforts that both Kamehameha Schools and Three Mountain Alliance are putting into restoring the species as well as others.”

Similarly, Whitehead emphasized how this rediscovery is especially meaningful for Native Hawaiians.

“It’s incredible to have a piece of our landscape, of our cultural heritage that we thought was lost and it has now been found,” Whitehead said.

“I know myself and a number of botanists have looked for this plant in this particular area because it was the last place that it was seen on the island back in the in the early 1970s. Whenever I would visit the area, I’d be kind of scanning the trees and scanning the ground to see if maybe just one might have survived.”

“So, when I got an email from Kallie’s supervisor late on a Friday afternoon, and when I saw the pictures, I immediately knew what it was. It was in fact the plant we’ve been looking for, for years and years,” she continued.

Since the plant was found in 2021, a temporary fence has been installed around the population.

Eight ripe fruit were also collected. Some fruit were sent to Lyon Arboretum for storage and others were taken to the Volcano Rare Plant Facility for propagation.

More than a year later, some of those propagated plants are now in the wild — and even flourishing.

“My vision is, I want to see what they saw in the early 1900s,” Whitehead explained.

“Someday I would like us to be able to stand on the edge of a crater and look down into it and see a healthy koa forest with the little round heads of all of these delissea poking up through that canopy again.”

“What an amazing vision that is for the future.”