It’s a mid-morning and I’m standing with three botanists in Kokee State Park, the forested roof of Kauai, as they lace up their boots and pull on two-toed tabis. All four of us, dressed in shades of green and brown, prepared for mud, sun and rain, draw our packs tight and step purposefully onto the trail.
Our charge is simple: walk into the Alakai Swamp to a remote bog and check on the progress of eight recently outplanted young seedlings of Platanthera holochila, the native Hawaiian fringed orchid. Time allowing, we will trek to a second more isolated bog informally named for a single known plant, also a fringed orchid, as far as anyone knows the very last one of its kind left in the wild on Kauai.
Platanthera holochila is no ordinary orchid. Unlike the fanciful cattleya and plucky purple and white dendrobium commonly cultivated in Hawaii, Platanthera holochila is one of only three species of orchids native to Hawaii and is, without question, the rarest. It is a plant literally perched on the edge of extinction.
My guides this April morning are life-long devotees to the flora of Hawaii, more at home among trees and ferns than in the company of people.
Steve Perlman, a research biologist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), headquartered on Kauai, conducts field surveys across the state and has collected and documented plants extensively in the Marquesas Islands, Micronesia and other areas of the Pacific for more than 35 years.
His colleague, Wendy Kishida, is Kauai’s field representative for the PEP Plant Extinction Prevention program, a collaborative program comprised of more than 40 diverse public and private organizations and bodies working to save the rarest of rare Hawaiian plants — those with fewer than 50 known individuals left in the wild.
The third botanist is Dr. Ruth Aguraiuja, a senior researcher at Tallinn Botanic Garden in Estonia who specializes in rare native Hawaiian ferns and has regularly conducted research in Hawaii over the last 13 years.
Accompanying the botanists as an NTBG staff photographer, my job is simple. I am to document the trip in photos and make first-hand observations of the efforts to save this rarest of Hawaiian orchids which, without a long-term commitment and the cooperation of many, would almost certainly fade into extinction in silence.
Botanists and collectors from many different organizations regularly tramp into the deepest recesses of the wild in search of rare or unknown plants. Their work, as vital as it is for the survival of the world’s flora, often goes unnoticed by the world at large, yet without their efforts, the remarkable living tapestry of life, that which we call biodiversity, would grow inexorably poorer, species by species, as plants, animals, insects and birds, all of which depend upon one another, slipped into oblivion.
The trail leading into the Alakai Swamp runs along a steep saddle overlooking relatively undisturbed native forests of ohia lehua trees, which herald spring’s arrival with their brilliant red puff-like blooms. The trail is lined with dense patches of bright green uluhe ferns and small to medium iliahi (sandalwood) trees, which bear small, unremarkable but attractive crimson flowers.
Soon the trail becomes a narrow boardwalk of worn wooden planks raised several inches above the ground. As we advance, the shady damp forest floor becomes a soft, spongy swamp. Although the boardwalk is broken in numerous spots and much of its metal grating has peeled off, the wooden plank path shortens hiking time into the swamp by two or three times and, more importantly, protects the delicate ecosystem by keeping hikers off the mosses, lichens, ferns and dwarf ohia lehua trees that grow here.
The botanists walk at a steady clip, moving in silence. But Perlman pauses at intervals, presumably for my benefit, to point out the plants along the trail, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth but Kauai.
“Scaevola glabra – in bloom now,” he says, pointing to a small curved bright yellow flower, a relative of the well-known naupaka plant found all over Hawaii and across the Pacific. Another few hundred yards and he extends his hand to a deep brownish-purple flower, still closed, but recognizable as a lobelia for its sharply C-curved flower which matches perfectly with the iiwi bird that co-adapted alongside the plant.
Farther along the trail we come to a zig-zagging set of stairs (270 steps, Perlman informs me), which descends to a stream. Kauai has been largely rain-free for a week so we can all easily hop from rock to rock to the other side. (Only five days later the entire island is engulfed in heavy rains for 10 straight days, surely making that crossing more perilous.)
Now well on our way to the Alakai Swamp, most of the plants are native, but at nearly every turn we see thick, patches of stubborn kahili ginger, an attractive plant until you consider the speed and tenacity at which it spreads and the damage it causes Hawaiian plants hard-pressed to compete with it and other invasive species.
Pausing again to pluck a small, thin purple and white fragrant native violet from where it pops from the earth in patches, Perlman smells the tiny flower, then passes it around so we can sample its fragrance. Continuing farther, Perlman stops to identify the coveted mokihana shrub whose leaves resemble the scent of anise. Also along the path grow lapalapa trees whose name comes from the leaves which flutter in the wind and, when crushed, give off the heavy smell of shoe polish or turpentine.
Walking through a native Hawaiian forest with these botanists is like listening to a symphony with a composer who can identify individual notes, dissecting arpeggios to bring chords into sharper focus, making the entire experience clearer and more enjoyable. I’ve walked this trail two dozen or more times, but never identified or recognized so many individual parts that make a Hawaiian forest like no other.
As we enter the Alakai Swamp proper, we advance into a sublime world of miniature trees, sedges, mosses and ferns where low green hapuu ferns and red ohia flowers are set off by the more muted silvery-white leaves and grasses that form the porous vegetative bed that thrives in this cool, mist-covered expanse. Clouds roll in quickly with a chill but disperse before one has time to put on a jacket. The sun comes out, but soon fades from view behind a veil of misty mountain air.
This route, the Alakai Swamp Trail, is hardly untraveled; in fact, it is one of the most popular hikes in all Hawaii. But just as I begin to feel a smug sense of familiarity, Perlman steps off the boardwalk and points into the mist.
“There,” is all he says, leading us away from the well-trodden path toward a fenced exclosure. Here, in this isolated portion of the bog, Perlman and a Platanthera expert from Illinois College, Dr. Lawrence Zettler, along with several botany students planted eight of some 90 tiny Platanthera orchids successfully cultivated by Zettler after decades of failed attempts in Hawaii. This successful propagation in itself is a remarkable achievement that merits a closer examination.
Following Perlman into the clouds, I realize this is the first time I’ve strayed off the boardwalk. With each squishy step, I am keenly aware of the fragility of this environment so I tread carefully in the footstep left before me. After a short walk we reach a simple wire fence built to keep out pigs, deer or other animals that could damage these endangered plants.
Stepping into this protected section of bog, Perlman and Kishida know exactly where to go: they lead us toward the first of eight small wire cages the size of small microwave ovens affixed to the soft ground by long metal stakes to prevent them from being blown or knocked over.
Inside these cages are the tiny Platanthera orchids, plants perilously close to extinction. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of people across Hawaii and Zettler, they have been returned to their home islands and outplanted in the wild with the hopes they will establish themselves, gain a foothold and might begin the long journey back to building healthy, new Hawaiian orchid populations.
Perlman and Kishida crouch down and look intently into the first cage like kids on Christmas morning, peering at presents they can hardly wait to open. For these botanists the gift is the sight of tiny green leaves poking out of the soil where plantlets were planted in weeks earlier.
Kishida, dressed in camouflage trousers, wraps herself in a blue jacket against the cold blanket of air that has enveloped us. Writing with a stubby pencil in a weathered field notebook, she records the plants’ vital statistics then moves to the next cage. When all is done, six of the eight young orchids have been easily observed and can be said to be growing well. As for the other two, no one wants to write them off, but notes indicate the plants could not be observed. Perhaps on the next visit.
When Perlman locates the fifth or sixth plant (they are all within a couple of hundred yards of each other), his face lights up because the plant appears to be growing with vigor, clearly moving in the opposite direction of extinction. That said, these orchids remain small and, for anyone accustomed to the showy displays of commercially grown orchids, would probably prove to be a great disappointment, at least visually.
But to a botanist the value of a plant is not determined by the presence or absence of colorful flowers. Perlman, who caught his first glimpse of the fringed orchid in a bog near Mt. Waialeale in 1977, has spent more than three decades tracking the few remaining wild Platanthera orchids on Kauai as well as Molokai and Maui. The plant was never found on Lanai or Hawaii Island and today is not known on Oahu, although plants were collected in the Koolau Mountains in the 1930s.
After a short break for lunch in the cool, foggy bog we retrace our steps to the boardwalk. Perlman suggests it is still early enough in the day to make the hike to a second, more remote bog to look for the last known wild Platanthera on Kauai. Earlier in the day he had described how the plant had, in past years, been so robust, so full of life, that it was growing as a dense clump of orchids that produced dozens, if not hundreds, of stems, which bore the plant’s characteristic small, bluish-green flowers.
It was hurricane Iniki in 1992 that may have begun what could ultimately prove to be the demise of this rare Hawaiian orchid. Despite all the factors working against native plants – invasive species, loss of habitat, animal destruction, disease and the unpredictable forces of weather and climate – these botanists share an unwavering commitment to the plants.
Once back on the wooden boardwalk, our pace quickens and we turn in the direction from which we came. We walk in silence for half an hour until, at a spot that strikes me as no different from any other along this stretch, Perlman stops and indicates it is again time to leave the boardwalk and march back into the swamp. With no obvious marker, I ask Perlman how he knows where to turn off, to which he replies matter of factly, “I just know.” And he does.
Again, we pad across the porous earth single-file, passing an entire world of dwarf trees, ferns, lichens, ferns and sedges, none higher than our knees. Gradually the landscape turns to wet forest – a mix of uluhe ferns, hapuu and lapalapa trees. Perlman leads the way, weaving left, then right, then left again along what can scarcely be described as a “trail” so much as “the way” only discernible to someone who has walked it dozens of times before. With no indicators to follow on our return, Perlman breaks large fern fronds to mark the path we can follow back later.
I consider myself a good judge of direction, but when we pause and discuss Mt. Waialeale, I say, “It’s that way, right?” only to be corrected and pointed in the opposite direction. It’s easy to see how people can go missing entirely in the hinterlands of Kauai.
Gradually we descend into a remote gulch thick with ferns. On one side, a sheer wall of green drops to a small, clear stream in a scene the looks befitting of hobbits and gnomes. This hidden green fold in Kauai’s rooftop is rich with a rare endemic fern, Sadleria unisora, which causes Aguraiuja, the Estonian fern researcher, no end of delight.
We make our way along a thin mud track at the edge of the stream, occasionally walking through the water, or climbing over the arching trunks of giant tree fern before crossing the water and ascending the other side through a thick jumble of trees until the dense forest opens to a broad bog bisected with a simple wire fence built to keep pigs and goats out of one of the most pristine native landscapes on the island. Crossing the fence, we continue over the sponge-like floor into a mist-shrouded Hawaiian dreamscape. The predominant colors are grey, brown, dull green and white, accented with flashes of orange or red new growth.
Perlman leads us to a large kolea shrub, the site of Kauai’s last known wild Platanthera. The trip has been building to this moment, the moment we would discover whether the orchid is still alive. In the 1980s this plant was so robust it was producing a hundred or more flower spikes. Then, in 1992, it was devastated by Iniki. For the last two years this plant was just a a single three-inch leaf poking out of the ground and last year it was not visible at all.
Perlman and Kishida approach the spot, clear back the kolea, and hunch down, searching for any sign of this last wild orchid before erupting into hollers of joy – “There it is! It’s alive!” Perlman immediately bursts into a broad, glowing smile, as if he had discovered a lost child or friend. The mood is jubilant as the botanists take photos and scratch notes.
The plant, while small and unrecognizable to most as anything more than a few pointed leaves, was looking better than it had for three years, Perlman says. He declares this to be a “pepalicious day.” That’s what PEP program botanists call a good day — when they find new plants, collect seeds or learn that their efforts to protect some rare plant have been successful. With six of the eight new orchids showing signs of growth and the last known wild plant once again rising from the earth, this was indeed a “pepalicious” day.
Perlman reminds me, “it isn’t always like this. Often we’ll hike out and we don’t find anything, or we find evidence that a plant has been lost or severely damaged.” In this line of work, the struggle to save the rarest of rare plants doesn’t mean the loss of a single plant, or even a population, but of an entire species. On a bad day Hawaii’s conservation botanists are witness to the end of life; the final scene of a living creature that traveled thousands of miles of ocean, defying unfathomable odds to reach land and successfully settle these improbable islands. Over 100 native Hawaiian plants, perhaps as many as 115, have already gone extinct, sometimes after years of battling to save them, usually alone, unobserved, in places like this bog.
But not the Hawaiian fringed orchid, not today. After our short visit to this rare plant, observations recorded, photographs taken, and the sacred air of this place imbibed, we turn and gingerly cross the mossy landscape, back over the fence and into the forest, for the long walk back.