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New native plant discovered

Botanists find Cyanea heluensis growing in remote West Maui

Cyanea heluensis, a newly described native plant, is shown in a recent photo. The only known individual was discovered in wet ohia forest on Mauna Kahalawai in West Maui. Plant Extinction Prevention Program photo

A new native flower was discovered in a remote location in West Maui last week, and it’s the only known plant of its kind to exist so far.

While exploring the steep slopes of Helu above Lahaina, botanists Hank Oppenheimer and Jennifer Higashino found a single large Cyanea heluensis. This new species is related to other native plants known as haha, but has different features, including unique leaves and curved, long, white flowers.

Cyanea heluensis is one of 250 species managed by the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, a project of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit at the University of Hawaii.

“So, few people study and know the flora and fauna well enough to recognize when a new species of plant, insect or bird lies in front of them,” said PEPP Botanist Steve Perlman. “Saving the plants that have evolved all over the world is so important. The age of discovery is not over. These jewels of creation represent the wonderful diversity of the planet Earth and we will never see their like again.”

The flowers of this plant and other related species are pollinated by birds, and the orange fruits are attractive to fruit-eating native birds that would disperse the seeds, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Plant Extinction Prevention Program botanist Steve Perlman examines the only known plant of Cyanea heluensis, a new native flower. Hank Oppenheimer photo

Since the Cyanea heluensis was found, numerous surveys using ropes to access steep cliffs have failed to locate any more individuals, making the conservation of the only known plant critically important, a news release said.

“Dozens of native plants like this one are now only kept alive in nurseries,” said DLNR Botanist Matthew Keir in a press release. “Just one natural disaster, like a hurricane, hitting a nursery could cause the extinction of many rare plants.”

Before animals like goats or rats eat the Cyanea heluensis and cause immediate extinction, Oppenheimer applied a special paste that would produce new growth on the plant.

The new growth was transported to the Olinda Rare Plant Facility and is currently being propagated, according to the press release.

Protections are needed to keep rare, wild plants like Cyanea heluensis alive.

Rats are a common problem for Hawaii’s rare plants because they can eat fruits before seeds can be dispersed, while slugs will eat flowers and young seedlings. Non-native hooved animals like goats and deer, which roam across millions of acres statewide, will also eat native plants and destroy the forest.

With funding support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DLNR, the Plant Extinction Prevention Program works to prevent the extinction of native plants.

In the case of Cyanea heluensis, botanists returned on many trips to install protections and attempt to collect seeds that could be grown offsite.

“We should treasure our planet and try to save each and every species. Conservation of our ecosystems and the species that depend on them is vital to mankind’s survival too,” Perlman said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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