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Chance discovery of plant thought to be extinct spurs new conservation effort

Delissea argutidentata hawaii island kamehameha schools
Jacob Chinn/Kamehameha Schools
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Kamehameha Schools
Amber Nāmaka Whitehead of Kamehameha Schools, left, plants a keiki Delissea argutidentata.

The serendipitous discovery of a rare, endangered plant out in the wild on the Big Island has conservationists jumping for joy — and working to save the species.

Kallie Barnes, a propagation technician with the group Three Mountain Alliance, first noticed the plant in April 2021 in a crater on Kamehameha Schools land. It had not been seen in the area since the 1970s.

"I was on a seed-collecting mission at this upper Kona restoration site. I was out in the field really just looking for ʻiliahi seeds, sandalwood," Barnes told The Conversation. "I just kept kind of taking a look around and I saw this plant, something I hadn't seen on that side before. And it looked like a Hawaiian lobeliad to me, but I wasn't positive."

"I took pictures and made sure to tag the location. I collected some seed as I didn't want them to be eaten just in case it was an important species," Barnes added.

As soon as she had cell phone service again, she sent some photos to Joan Yoshioka, a Three Mountain Alliance program administrator and rare plant enthusiast who helped identify it as Delissea argutidentata.

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Jacob Chinn/Kamehameha Schools
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Kamehameha Schools
Three Mountain Alliance Propagation Field Technician Kallie Barnes carries Delissea argutidentata plants.

The rare plant's Hawaiian name is unknown, but Kamehameha Schools is still researching.

"Everybody was just really stunned and extremely excited. It's so rare that you find a plant that was extinct in the wild," Barnes said. "Definitely serendipity."

Technicians at the Volcano Rare Plant Facility have been able to grow the collected seeds into keiki plants.

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Kamehameha Schools
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Delissea argutidentata can grow up to 35 feet tall. They were previously found under the shade of koa trees and inside old volcanic craters.

"Kamehameha Schools has started fencing the area. And we then went out and we were able to plant some of the keiki that came from the seeds that I originally harvested," Barnes said.

Amber Nāmaka Whitehead of Kamehameha Schools says conservationists rarely see endangered Hawaiian species go from being extinct in the wild to having six wild plants and 30 outplants. One of the wild plants already stands at about 8 feet.

"The early naturalists in the early 1900s, when they were still common, described them as growing up to 35 feet tall, perfectly straight, no branches with this big round crown of leaves," Whitehead said. "They grew amongst the koa trees and they were so tall that the little poof of leaves would be up in the canopy of the koa trees and when you walked through the forest, all you would see was their trunk."

Whitehead says Kamehameha is going to use the craters as a repository for other rare species in hopes of restoring the canopies to what they once were.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 17, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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