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Tour of a Plant Museum

I remember my first visit into a world-class museum. It was the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I cannot recall what works of art I saw, nor even the artists. Nevertheless, I remember the great sense of anticipation I felt. I remember the immaculate polished floors, the immense scale of some of the pieces. I remember my overwhelming emotional response to the beauty, artistry, and content of what I witnessed. Something sacred was made evident to me there. Like a powerful familiar smell that returns to the memory, that day in the museum comes back to me from time to time. This museum experience came to me recently on a visit to a small kipuka of native forest at Manuka Natural Area Reserve.

Manuka Natural Area Reserve is located in the Kau district on the southwest slope of Mauna Loa. It is one of nineteen different reserves within the statewide Natural Area Reserves System (NARS), of which Hawaii Island has eight. It is the largest reserve in the NARS and easily accessible off Highway 11. Right off the highway is a wonderful State Park with restrooms and a small botanical collection; above this is a self-guided interpretive loop trail that passes through a fine example of mid to lowland native mesic forest. Like most of Hawaii’s forests, it has been impacted dramatically by human use and introduced plants. Hidden within the 25,550 acre reserve of rough a’a flows and dense ohi’a-lehua forest lies a treasure of two-hundred acres. This jewel of Hawaiian forest is a small kipuka that Natural Area Reserve Specialist Bryon Stevens calls the “largest, ancient, undisturbed remnant of leeward, lowland, mesic forest left on the Big Island.”

photo by Tina Nisbet

Manuka State Park entrance and 2 mile loop trail head. Photo by Tina Nisbet

Photo by Andrew Nisbet

Manuka State Park entrance and 2 mile loop trail head. Photo by Andrew Nisbet

Bryon stumbled into the kipuka one day while hiking back down from a forest survey. Suddenly, instead of the typical ohi’a-lehua dominate forest, he found himself in a thicket of ‘olopua, the native olive. Here was a relic from the past; an amazing diversity of native plants protected from outside disturbance by jagged lava. Elsewhere these deep soils would have been converted to coffee farms or cattle ranches, but in this kipuka lay one of the last remnants of the ancient forest that once covered leeward Hawaii. When I received Bryon’s letter describing the forest and an invitation to visit the kipuka, I was instantly excited.

I joined Bryon and his co-worker Nick Agorastos at the parking lot of the State Park. After a moderate walk up through the forest, we entered the kipuka. At the boundary, the forest of tall, young, grey leafed ohi’a changed abruptly to one of gnarled ‘olopua with glossy green foliage. ‘Olopua is a tree that I’ve only seen a few times on trails where there is “one here and one there”. Now I was surrounded by ‘olopua seedlings, young trees, and ancient giants. Along with the ‘olopua I also began to see several species I couldn’t identify. Some were plants I had come across in literature but never seen, others I had never heard of: a’ia’i, po’ola, kilioe, waimakanui, and ka’ape’ape. Some of the “common” plants were lama, alahe’e, kopiko, and papalakepau, a tree from whose sticky sap the Hawaiians used to catch native birds. The ohi’a trees in the kipuka are of immense size. There are many ohi’a that are six feet in diameter and well over a hundred feet tall. One tree is the largest I’ve ever seen; it’s definitely a champion size contender. A plant survey of the kipuka revealed nearly fifty species of native plants within an area under 200 acres. This was the type of bio-diversity noted by early naturalists such as Hillebrand and Rock. In undisturbed pockets like this, one may expect to find very rare or even new species of native plants. And the kipuka does not disappoint. Two endangered species make their home within the kipuka-mehamehame and the “Hawaiian grape”. Mehamehame (Fleuggia neowawrae) is a once common tree that had considerable die-off in the early part of this century. Just one old, decrepit tree remains in the kipuka, surrounded by skeletons of what was once a grove. . The Hawaiian grape (Gouania vitifolia) is doing better in the kipuka. A small but healthy population were found here, the first plants seen on this island for a hundred years. Cuttings now growing at an endangered species propagation facility in Volcano offer new hope for a plant recently thought to be extinct.

For the past year, the NARS crew have been working in the kipuka, removing invasive non-native weeds. Guava, banana poka, christmasberry and several other noxious species are targeted for removal. With over 82,000 acres of Reserve lands under their care, and a field staff that rarely numbers more than two, they are understaffed and desperately need volunteers to continue this and other projects. Future plans include a fence to exclude feral pigs (who have no respect for art) from this museum, and reintroduction of rare native plants that may once have grown here. Interested volunteers are welcome. The area is on uneven ground, the work strenuous, and requires a fair bit of common sense, but the opportunity to spend time in such a rare and endangered setting while helping to preserve a remarkable vestige of Hawaii’s natural history is worth the sweat. They hope to “preserve this area as a ‘plant museum.’” Though the rough a’a floor is not smooth and polished, this “museum” left me with the unmistakable sense of awe, appreciation, and sacredness of my museum experience. Hopefully, with the stout framing of fencework, the environmental controls of weed removal, and the public’s awareness of this precious treasure, Manuka’s kipuka will stand as a testament to the creative powers of nature in Hawaii. It is truly a unique and priceless canvas.

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