Hawaii is often associated with brightly colored orchids. But most are commonly cultivated commercial varieties strung into lei, sold in nurseries and used for decoration and landscaping.

In fact, Hawaii has only three native orchids:
Anoectochilus sandvicensis,
Liparis hawaiensis and Platanthera holochila. All three species grow in the highest reaches of the islands’ forests and bogs, but it is the Platanthera, also called the fringed orchid, that is the rarest of them all.

Noteworthy is the fact that this orchid’s closest relative is another Platanthera species native to the Aleutian Islands, which is where some researchers believe the Hawaiian species may have its origins, possibly transported to Hawaii as seeds stuck to migrating golden plovers or similar birds.

While Platanthera once grew on Kauai, Oahu, Molokai and Maui (though never recorded on Lanai, Kahoolawe, Niihau or Hawaii Island), until very recently, only around two dozen wild plants on Molokai, seven on Maui and just one known plant on Kauai remained.

Steve Perlman, a veteran research biologist with the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, has been working with this rarest of Hawaiian orchids since first encountering the plant near Mt. Waialeale in 1977. Perlman has thoroughly researched the history of this orchid and has documented the collection records of Platanthera on Kauai from botanist William Hillebrand’s collection in the 1880s to those of V. Knudsen and J.M. Lydgate and, between 1909 and 1919, by C.N. Forbes and J. Rock. Collections were also made by R. Fosberg and H. St. John on Oahu as late as 1938, but then nothing was found until Perlman and Pieter van Royen, of Bishop Museum, found Platanthera again in 1977.

Since that time Perlman has been gathering seeds (an orchid seed is tiny, scarcely larger than lint) and sending them to nurseries and labs in the hope that they can be successfully propagated in order to infuse new life into the plant’s dwindling population. Despite the efforts of many, however, no one had ever successfully grown the Platanthera orchid from seeds ― until Perlman connected with botanist Dr. Lawrence Zettler, director of the Orchid Recovery Program at Illinois College.

Using seeds Perlman had collected from plants on Molokai and Kauai, Zettler began the long, arduous task of trying to grow new plants. The biggest hurdle to overcome, Zettler learned, was that this particular orchid required the presence of a specific mycorrhizal fungus in the soil. Experiments in 2003 first yielded positive results but with a fungus from Florida that could not be introduced to Hawaii.

As ongoing experimentation by Zettler continued to show promise, Perlman and colleagues from the Plant Extinction Prevention program on Maui and Kauai continued collecting seeds. On Kauai, there was only a single known individual in a remote bog in the Alakai Swamp.

In 2011, in what is a major victory for plant conservation in Hawaii and for all orchid enthusiasts, Zettler returned to Hawaii carrying 91 seedlings grown in sterile medium. They were divided to be grown in nurseries on Kauai, Oahu and Maui and outplanted in a fenced exclosure on Kauai and inside The Nature Conservancy’s Kamakou Preserve. Additional plans are being made to reintroduce Platanthera seedlings to Oahu, where it is believed to be extinct in the wild.