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.