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The Beauty of Botany


A boy hands the cup of kava to a seated woman.
The kava ceremony (shown here in Hawaii) creates respectful relations with strangers and visitors.

Sitting in ceremony
POSTED 25 MAY 2000 "The morning is clear and calm," the orator intoned from his seat on a mat in an open-air pavilion amid a vast tropical garden. With an elaborate fly whisk made of tawny coconut husk resting on his shoulder and a carved wooden staff signifying his position, Gaugau Tavana plunged into a kava ceremony.

Tavana, who directs education at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Hawaii, had explained that this tradition is used throughout Polynesia to greet honored guests and to defuse tension before negotiations. Kava, a tea made from shredded bark of the Piper methysticum tree, numbs the mouth and calms the spirit.

In his native Samoan, Tavana spoke with authority, his rich, sonorous voice rising above the sensuous rhythm of wind-rustled leaves. Amidst a river valley devoted to preserving the vanishing native plants of Polynesia, and Hawaii in particular, botanist Paul Cox, who directs the NTBG, translated with downcast eyes: "Voices have been heard in the depths of the underworld. We are glad that you are here. Please listen to the words that I speak."

Nishek, with blue cap, gestures toward a prostrate plant with grayish leaves.
Kanaloa kahoolawensis, recently discovered on an island off Maui, is the only species in a new genus. NTBG propagator Bob Nishek shows off the rare plant; only two are known in the wild. Three live here at the nursery.

Stand together, or perish separately
Even though we "honored guests" were actually lowly journalists, not exalted chiefs, and even though the language was Samoan rather than Hawaiian, the ceremony retained a certain authenticity. In an era when disputes were not settled by a phalanx of cellphone-toting lawyers, the kava ceremony formed a social glue that bridged the void between hosts and visitors and established a reciprocal obligation to civil behavior. By elevating us above them in status, our hosts were obliging us to honor their traditions and mana (spiritual force).

For thousands of years, the kava ritual, and the plants on which it depends, helped sustain the many Polynesian cultures on scraps of land in a vast stretch of Pacific Ocean.

Our ceremony took place in Hawaii, in northern Polynesia, in a section of the tropical botanical garden devoted to plants Polynesian settlers had brought to Hawaii 20 centuries ago. Because the Polynesians depended on dozens of plants, their canoes carried seeds and seedlings as well as people, pigs and food for the journey. These plants included:

Kava, the ceremonial drink

Taro, a food staple that is poisonous until cooked

Pandanus, a tree that supplies thatching, canoe wood, fruit, and material for matting

Palm, a tree that gives fruit, oil, thatching and cord.

The Polynesians crossed thousands of miles of ocean without benefit of navigational instruments. These were epic feats of navigation, but had the Polynesians left their essential plants behind, they might have perished on Hawaii.

Drastic danger
His oration complete, Tavana dipped a coconut cup into the kava and handed it to his son, who delivered the libation to each guest in turn. As instructed, we poured off a few drops, then sipped the strange pale broth.

The ceremony was part of an effort to bridge a gap between desk-bound journalists, the reading public, and the fact that both tropical plants, and the cultures dependent upon them, are in grave danger. Consider:

Every minute, 64 acres of tropical forest is destroyed, according to the Rainforest Alliance. That equals 33.8 million acres per year.

Six thousand languages were spoken in 1900. Half are gone, and 80 percent of the remainder are spoken only by elders.

Hawaii has 1,100 plant species, and more than 90 percent are endemic -- live naturally only here. Indeed, the tiny island of Kauai, home of botanical garden, has one-third of U.S. endangered plants. About 100 Hawaiian plants have gone extinct in the wild.

Hawaii has so many rare plants that one percent of the NTBG's new acquisitions is a new species. One collector, Ken Wood, has recently found the first new genus of plant to be discovered in Hawaii since 1913. (A genus is a group of species with related characteristics, and as such, represents a higher level of biodiversity.) Exactly two plants are known to live in the wild. Three more live in the garden.

One-eighth of all plant species are threatened with immediate extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

They stand at a table mounded with plant products: broad, deep green breadfruit leaves, and white coconut meat. He holds a package wrapped in breadfruit leaves
Diane Ragone, collector of breadfruit, and Gaugau Tavana, education chief at National Tropical Botanical Garden, preparing palusami, a traditional Polynesian sweet treat..

Most of us had written about endangered and extinct species we'd never seen. Now, in Hawaii, we were seeing those plants up close and personal. We were getting a crash course in the complex interplay of native plants, cultures and habitat. We were examining the flip side of biodiversity -- the way Polynesians, Europeans and Asians had transformed Pacific islands like Hawaii from centers of biodiversity into capitals of extinction. Finally, we were seeing a botanical Noah's ark that included plants whose wild representatives numbered in single digits.

Gardeners of Eden
The private, non-profit NTBG has a momentous mission -- saving the plants and helping save the cultures of the Pacific.
Just as the extinction of the only bird able to pollinate a plant spells doom for that plant, when a forest dies, the plants and cultures rooted in it are doomed. And when a culture dies, so does its knowledge of forest medicines.

Meanwhile, the kava ceremony is concluding. The gap between ourselves and our hosts now bridged, we were allowed to enter the taboo section separating us.

The morning may have dawned clear and calm. But we knew that gathering storm clouds were poised to drown cultures, species and landscapes.

Today, the last representative of a plant or animal could be dying somewhere on our great, disturbed Earth.

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All photos in this feature unless otherwise noted ©David Tenenbaum.