navigation buttonsCeremonial plantsDiversity and extinctionThe alien invasionVanishing nativesMotivation to preserve

The Beauty of Botany


With his feet in stirrups and his legs in a climbing harness, Wood reaches up to grab a palm fruit.
Plant collector Ken Wood of the National Tropical Botanical Garden developed this low-tech method for climbing trees to retrieve samples of flowers, fruits and leaves.

Rare is beautiful
Weeds and extinctions are the losing side of the coin. Flip the coin, and you'll meet dedicated botanists striving to resuscitate some incredibly rare plants.

These are plants driven to the edge of extinction by agriculture and development, alien plants and herbivores -- figuratively and literally. After so much disturbance, you won't find rare plants strolling the beach at Waikiki.

"We don't work much in the lowlands," says botanist Ken Wood, "because we know the catastrophic cascade of species falling apart" has taken place. About the only place a goat can't reach, says Wood, is the face of a cliff.

Second-story conservationists
Wood and Steven Perlman have adapted mountaineering gear in their quest to reach rare plants living on rainy mountaintops, steep cliffs, and sea spires (bits of rock emerging from the ocean). The daring duo of Wood and Perlman hitch ropes to a solid-looking tree at the top of an interesting-looking slope, and rappel down to search for plants. At particularly inaccessible locations, the botanists may arrive via helicopter.

Things can go wrong: The rope dislodges rocks which naturally fall down onto the botanists below. And the rope itself can cause problems: On Guam, Perlman once clambered down some limestone cliffs, only to find on his return that the sharp rock had cut halfway through the rope.

Wood remembers tying three 50-meter ropes together to reach a particularly rare plant. At a concave section of the cliff, he lost touch with the rock and he started rotating. Wood admits that he tends to question his sanity at times like that, until he recalls that saving vanishing plants is his life work.

With fan-shaped leaves tapering to sharp points, Brighamia resembles a short palm.
Natives in the genus Pritchardia are under severe pressure in Hawaii, their only home

Hard choices
Once you've reached the rare plants, whether on a mountaintop or cliffside, what to do about them? The point of this second-story work, after all, is not just to collect specimens, but plant conservation. You can't just dig up the last relic of a species and hope it will survive in a nursery.

In a sense, Wood and Perlman find themselves taking evolution in their hands -- some of their finds are so rare that they could be endangered by snatching seeds for the nursery -- or from doing nothing. If seeds are absent (perhaps due to the extinction of a pollinator), Wood may, while hanging from a cliff, pollinate the plants with a tiny brush. One thing they don't do, he stresses, is to dig up any plants.

If the population is large enough, the botanists will return seeds, cuttings, even entire plants to the garden. A recent case is Kanaloa, a genus with only one species recently discovered on a former bombing range on the island of Kaho'olawe. The Garden's nursery is trying to propagate the two surviving plants.

Wood suspects that Kanaloa fell victim to habitat destruction and exotic grazing animals, and to an indirect ecological effect: After a rain forest on nearby Maui was destroyed, the air carries less moisture from plant transpiration to Kaho'olawe, causing drought.

Combining knowledge of high-flying techniques and local plants, Perlman and Wood regularly work throughout the Pacific, identifying what plants live where. The duo has become legendary among botanists, and Garden director Paul Alan Cox says proudly, "We have the best rough-terrain botanists in the world. Our team will do almost anything legal, will take any risk, to help save a plant."

Green ark?
Once rare-plant samples are returned, the National Tropical Botanical Garden tries to grow them at one of four locations in Hawaii (the garden's fifth location is in South Florida).

A poster-plant for NTBG's preservation efforts is the umbrella-shaped Brighamia. One of the tree's populations plummeted from 100 plants in the wild to two, perhaps due the decline of its pollinator, the endangered sphinx moth, compounded by the effects of a hurricane.

The garden also grows representatives of another vanishing Hawaiian genus, Pritchardia palms. Pritchardia viscosa, for example, is not reproducing in the wild, probably because its seeds are being devoured by rats.

Although the garden houses more than 1,100 unique plant varieties, its goal is not to create an ark but rather to store plants temporarily until they can be safely reintroduced to the wild.

Virtually no reputable conservationist sees botanical gardens and zoos as a long-term answer to the extinction crisis, since saving individual species does not protect vanishing ecosystems.

For now, however, director Cox sees little choice, at least for plants from Hawaii and many other tropical locales: "It's unsafe for [many plants] to exist in the wild." He likens the NTBG and similar gardens to "a home for battered women. It's not safe at home. The question is what we can do to make it safe at home."

Wanted: young conservationists

Cox, with spectacles, green lei and Hawaiian shirt, looks off-camera with the yellow orchid on the tree behind him.
Looking at this Angrecum orchid, Charles Darwin predicted the existence of a long-tongued pollinator. Ethnobotanist Paul Cox looks at it, and sees beauty -- and the fragility of ecological relationships.

Unlike many colleagues, Cox is optimistic that conditions will improve for endangered species. "My sense is that the next generation may be more careful" with the environment, he says, but acknowledges that ultimate success is uncertain at best. Thinking of the intimate relationships between pollinators, plants, and traditional cultures, he says, "If we are losing entire [eco]systems, the battle may be futile."

A simple demonstration of the relationship between forest plants and animals comes from the night-blooming Angrecum orchid. The yellow-flowered beauty has a nectary at least 8 inches long -- meaning that its pollinator needs a snake-like tongue to reach the delicious, high-sugar nectar inside.

No less a naturalist than Charles Darwin, who saw the Angrecum in Madagascar in the 1860s, correctly predicted that a moth with a 22-centimeter tongue must exist in the forest. Fifty years later, the moth was found -- with a rolled-up tongue that snoots out like a Hong-Kong New Year's party favor. Without that unique pollinator, the orchid would be doomed.

This danger is not just theoretical. In Samoa, for example, a large bat called the Samoan flying fox was hunted almost to extinction. Cox, who has worked extensively in Samoa, started a conservation campaign for the large bat, which, he estimates, pollinates 75 percent of fruit tree species in Samoa (see "Pollinator Disruption" in the bibliography).

When pollinators die out, Cox sees a cascade of extinction -- a "hellish cycle... That's not just rivets popping out of the lifeboat," he laments. "That's the entire transom falling overboard."

With the planetary lifeboat in danger, Cox has shifted his focus from ethnobotany -- the study of how people use plants -- to advocating conservation (see "Nafanua... " in the bibliography). Cox, who helped establish reserves and national parks in Samoa, says he'd "rather be hanging out with plants" than traveling the globe pushing conservation. But the crisis is real, and he says he spends too much time "banging my tin cup on limousine windows."

If it's so bad, why bother?

      back more
The Why Files    
There are 1 2 3 4 5 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search