Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, April 30, 1999

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Bill Garnett has a firm grip on haha seedlings. While
gathering a haha specimen at Mount Kaala, Garnett
fell 45 feet and was seriously injured.

Critical care
for native plants

Bring em back alive," that's the mission of Bill Garnett and his endangered species recovery program. Garnett, working for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, is cultivating native Hawaiian plants on the endangered species list and returning them to their natural habitats.

All of this is taking place at an abandoned Nike missile tracking station above Mokuleia that the Army shut down nearly 30 years ago. Traces of the old camp remain in a couple of flights of rusty stairs to high rusty platforms that offer a magnificent view of the entire North Shore.

Garnett has converted one of the old buildings into a fog house, a kind of greenhouse with a fog machine that creates 80 to 90 percent humidity, simulating conditions in the rain forest from which many of the plants come. In the mist, he and his team cultivate a dwarf peperomia and a native lobelia that may be extinct in the wild. There is a rare grass that once grew on Diamond Head and a native shark-tail cyanea with only one existing plant in the wild.

They appear to be thriving in the fog house, and Garnett says he toughens them up in the greenhouse before transplanting them into the wild. Growing these rare plants, he says, isn't as difficult as finding them in the first place. "The last time anybody saw some of these endangered plants was 60 years ago -- botanists keep excellent records. First we have to find them again, and then we collect seeds from existing plants, and cuttings only if we know we can successfully propagate them in the nursery."

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The endangered native schiedea, which is found in
Diamond Head Crater, boasts pretty flowers that would
make it a great landscape plant if it could be successfully
propagated in large numbers.

Collecting these plants is not a walk in the woods. It can be life threatening, as Garnett is aware. "In January of 1998, I went with Steve Perlman and Ken Wood to collect haha, a native lobelia, on Mount Kaala ... I was going back to the truck along a muddy track, and I slipped. After 17 years of working in the field, I stepped on the wrong kukui nut and I fell 45 feet."

Garnett broke five vertebrae in his back and both arms, as well as cracking his head. Perlman and Wood got him to a hospital where he spent three weeks, and he still has twinges of pain from the back injury. But the haha came through without a scratch and has been propagated in the fog house.

Garnett has been fortunate in his friends. "This is a collaborative project," he said. "I'm not the Lone Ranger. I work with the Nature Conservancy and the federal government, who own most of the land up here, as well as with the state. Eighty percent of our funding comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species Recovery program, and the rest comes from the DLNR of the state. My employer is the University of Hawaii."

Garnett has been working more than five years at his isolated nursery and this is the driest spring since he started. "We have to collect all of our water from runoff on the roofs and water catchments in the forest. We usually have 50 to 70 inches of rain a year, and we are now running at half of that." This makes it harder for the young plants to become re-established in the wild.

Once the plants are growing well in the greenhouse and have toughened up outdoors, they are returned to carefully selected native habitats. "If we choose the sites well, they should be able to carry on without further care. To make sure, we follow them through their first season, until they are established. We put each plant back within its historical range, in the vicinity of where it was first found. We use old notes from early botanists, kept at the herbarium of the Bishop Museum, and we identify known threats, what made the plant disappear in the first place.

"Pigs are a big problem here, and goats in the Waianae Mountains. Rats eat every last seed of a plant. In some cases, it is the lack of a pollinator that has since gone extinct."

Garnett admits it's a fight. "Since I started the job, we've cultivated about 20 different endangered species, but none has really recovered. They are all still regarded as endangered."

He adds, "We need all the help we can get."

Lend a hand

Volunteers are welcome to help the endangered species recovery program on weekends with weeding and the cleaning of seeds. Call the Volunteer Coordinator at the state Department of of Land and Natural Resources, 587-0393.

Do It Electric!

Gardening Calendar in Do It Electric!

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Evergreen by Lois Taylor, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu 96802.
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Evergreen by Lois Taylor is a regular Friday feature of the
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