Horticulturist Ernest Rezents shows dirt on hands from working at Fleming Arboretum on Maui. Under President and CEO Martha Vockrodt-Moran, the arboretum has become a statewide seed bank for rare native species.
ARBORETUM: SAVING NATIVE SPECIES
Legacy, rarity thrive on Maui
The lush greenery on the slopes of Haleakala where a nearly extinct Hawaiian tree was saved is Martha Vockrodt-Moran's playground and life.
She and her sisters explored the 17 acres on horseback while their parents maintained the property every weekend, providing the sweat and funds to keep her grandfather's legacy thriving for 45 years.
Her grandfather, David Thomas Fleming, started the D.T. Fleming Arboretum in 1952, turning the dryland forest on the Pu'u Mahoe cinder cone into a sanctuary for endangered Hawaiian trees and plants, Vockrodt-Moran said.
She has been taking care of it since 1975.
"I always loved this place," Vockrodt-Moran said. Back in the 1950s, Fleming was "a pioneer of native plant preservation," and his arboretum is "the oldest and largest" and most unusual in the state, she said.
Eight years ago, her parents officially handed over the arboretum to Vockrodt-Moran, the landscape designer and artist said. But her 95-year-old mother, Euphence Fleming Vockrodt, still helps with the work every Friday.
Horticulturist Ernest Rezents, professor emeritus at Maui Community College, said Moran "takes care of the arboretum like it was her child."
Vockrodt-Moran took the property to a higher level by forming the nonprofit Friends of the Fleming Arboretum in 2002. The arboretum provides protection to about 245 trees and 104 native species, of which 19 are listed as rare and endangered in Hawaii, she said.
With government and private grants, the friends group began major renovations of the property's water lines, roads and fencing. With Vockrodt-Moran as chief executive officer and president, the group undertook major eradication of invasive species and, most significantly, turned the arboretum into a statewide seed bank for rare and endangered plant species.
When she took over, "fences were falling down" and the property "deserved way better," she said. "I fought tooth and nail to prevent the arboretum turning to tourism to support it." She chose to take the nonprofit route for the betterment of the environment in line with "the vision of my grandfather, who was a caring, community-minded man," Vockrodt-Moran said.
The group's biggest accomplishment to date has been "saving the alani tree (Melicope knudsenii) from near extinction," she said.
Richard Nakagawa, a state Department of Land and Natural Resources nursery manager in Maui described the rescue of the alani as: "It's huge!"
"The alani is valuable because of its rarity. There are only two known adult alani trees in the entire world. One is at the arboretum and the other several miles away (in the Auwahi dryland forest). ... It is endemic or only found on Maui," said Nakagawa, who has worked with Vockrodt-Moran for about 20 years.
It was the "combined teamwork that saved the alani; it was a tribute to Maui people," said Art Medeiros, a U.S. Geological Survey botanist and leader of the Auwahi restoration effort. Medeiros said the alani is distinguished by its "large, pendulous inflorescence (multi-flowers). It's so unusual. ... It is one of the super-rare species of native Hawaiian plants."
In 2004, Rezents had detected an infestation on the mother tree at the arboretum and advised Vockrodt-Moran to use a pesticide. In the past, if the tree did produce seeds, they did not reach maturity and germination was poor, he recalled.
"When we eliminated the pests, it just flourished. We had a fantastic crop of flowers, and it hadn't flowered for a long time," Rezents said.
When the alani finally spawned 1,600 healthy seeds, they were distributed to various nurseries for careful nurturing. Only about 30 seedlings survived and the majority were returned to the arboretum and the Auwahi forest for replanting, Vockrodt-Moran said.
Planting the first alani keiki in the Auwahi forest (their home of origin) in 2005 "was like a mini Merrie Monarch (festival) -- we had chanting and a beautiful ceremony," she said.
Vockrodt-Moran is confident that her grandfather "would smile at the direction" the arboretum is taking toward "becoming a stronger seed source."
"We have more populations of the rarest species. We now have genetic diversity (and) better cross-pollination," given the broad range of growing conditions at research nurseries in and out of the state.
"I wonder what his advice would be?" she pondered.