‘Ama’uma’u fern (Sadleria cyatheoides)

Five Amaumau fern grow on lava flows created in the early 20th century with other pioneer species like ‘Ohi’a lehua.

Driving through the big island of Hawaii on the saddle road, the scenery changes drastically from vegetation introduced by ranches to hard lava rocks with little to no soil. Growing on it are some of the most versatile and hardy species of plants. These pioneer species are the first to inhabit rocky lava beds after the erupted magma cools down. Among those species is the Amaumau fern. The first time I saw this fern, I assumed it belonged to the more common fern order of tree ferns. I was pleasantly surprised to learn more about this fantastic fern. For now, it has taken the spot of my favorite species of ferns!

Amaumau fern belongs to the endemic genus Sadleria. It is found in all major islands of Hawaii and grows on lava flows, open spaces, and wet forests. The fern can tolerate extreme heat and direct sunlight, which gives its leaves a red tinge. The plant can grow vertically, like a small tree fern, or horizontally with its rhizomes covered with silver-colored dead leaves. 

The crater Halemaʻumaʻu, home to the goddess of fire and volcanoes, Pele, derives its name from this fern. Halemaʻumaʻu means “house of the ʻāmaʻu fern.”

Pua Kala (Hawaiian prickly poppy)

Preferring to grow on the leeward side of islands, these beautiful native poppies of Hawaii grow in dry, sunny coastal areas and high elevations dry mountainous climate. It is the only native poppy found across the Hawaiian islands. It also is endemic to the state.

The prickly poppy lives up to its name. The plant is covered with thorns, including on its leaves and buds. The plant is toxic, oozing yellow sap if disturbed. Native Hawaiians used the poppy for medicinal purposes.

The plants I was able to photograph were growing on the rocky coast of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. One of them had what I think was a stripped lynx spider ambushing possible pollinators from inside the flower!

Phoebastria immumtabilis (Laysan Albatross)

I was lucky enough to visit an Albatross breeding colony on the island of Oahu. A childhood dream come true!

The Laysan albatross is a large seabird that ranges across the North Pacific. More than 99% of the breeding population of the bird lives in the northern Hawaiian island, specifically in the midway atoll and Laysan islands. The species suffered a drastic population reduction in the early 1900s due to immense scale slaughter of populations for their feathers. The species is not recovering and is now classified as near threatened.

Albatross tend to bond for life. To the right is a pair of albatross settling in for the night in a grove of possible false sandalwood.

Occasionally, the birds form same-sex pairs consisting of two females. This has been observed in the colony on the Hawaiian island Oahu, where the sex ratio of male to female is 2 to 3 and 31% of all pairs are between females. 

A brief Hawaiian detour, Hawaiian Silversword (‘ahinahina)

Winter months in New Jersey can get hard, with limited sunlight and all the beautiful flora hibernating for the winter. I am lucky enough to have a sister who lives in Hawaii! While in Hawaii, I couldn’t help but botanize the local native flora. On the island of Oahu, it is sad to see that most of the landscape is covered with invasive plants and birds from across the world. The island’s native forests are at risk of being wiped out thanks to escaped plants from people’s gardens. Even so, one can find the surviving remnants of a once-thriving ecosystem and efforts made to preserve it. For the next few weeks, I will try to unload my photographs from the big island of Hawaii and the island of Oahu.

First off is possibly the most famous native plant in the botanical world, the Hawaiian silverswords! Silverswords are massive showy plants that grow on the sides of volcanoes on two of Hawaii’s islands, Maui and Hawaii. The plants are large silvery rosettes forming hardy plants that can survive climate extremities. Once common across the landscape, these large, showy plants suffered dramatic decline due to cattle farms and visitors ripping them out to keep as souvenirs. These plants are now federally protected, and restoration efforts are underway to try and save the various subspecies of the plant.

As is true for most island species, the two islands inhabited by the silverswords have produced two closely related subspecies. The Haleakala silversword grows around the volcano Haleakala in Maui. The Mauna Kea silversword is found around the peak of Mauna Kea on the big island. Efforts to save the Haleakala silversword have resulted in a resurgence of the plant under management, but the Mauna Kea has yet to see the same fate. Less than 50 of these plants continue to grow naturally in an inaccessible part of the Mauna Kea, saved from the cattle that have decimated its population. 750+ now grow under protection, many fenced off from livestock.

I was lucky enough to find these plants in a protected trail in Mauna Kea, kept under watch but left to the elements. Seeing them was a delight. At 9000 ft, the climate is not what you would expect from a place advertised relentlessly as a tropical paradise. The weather is much colder and harsher at that altitude, allowing the unique plants to survive. I visited them after they had done flowering for the year. Still, their giant flower stalks were left looking impressive, with a fresh batch of seeds! Hopefully, I can revisit them in the coming years and witness their magnificent blooms.

Silverswords are further empiriled thanks to climate change. They grow in a narrow band of altitude and depend on their delicate ecosystem for survival, with climate change, the habitable altitudes could change, further narrowing its natural range.