Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photo by Elyse Butler
Mist billows out like smoke from a small greenhouse at the
National Tropical Botanical Garden on the south shore of Kaua‘i. Inside the
screened confines are some of the world’s rarest plants, species endemic to the
high-elevation cloud forests of Hawai‘i.
Previously, if you wanted a glimpse of Cyanea rivularis, a spectacular lobelia known only from a remote
valley on the Na Pali coast, you would have had to embark on a day-long slog
braving steep, slippery terrain and inclement weather. Or you could’ve hired a
helicopter and waited for one of the fifty-odd days of the year when the mist-shrouded
mountains were clear enough to allow a drop-off. And if upon arrival at the site
your plant wasn’t blooming, tough luck.
Admiring C. rivularis and
other botanical treasures is much easier now thanks to the green-thumbed staff
at the NTBG. Horticulturalist Michael DeMotta harvests seeds from the wild,
meticulously propagates them and settles them into the raised lava rock beds of
the new Montane Forest Display, nicknamed the Mist House. The space is small
but packed with around seventy-five gems. Beneath a cascade of bright green
leaves, a creamy white lobelia opens thick, magenta-tipped petals. Nearby are
native sundews, miniature carnivorous plants that trap insects with sweet and sticky
tentacles. A scentless Hawaiian mint, Stenogyne
kealiae, sprawls pell-mell from its rocky ledge, thrusting square-stemmed leaves
exuberantly into the air. This plant’s seeds were collected ten years ago from a
population that’s now extinct — demonstrating the collection’s importance to conservation
The display is barely two years old but already flourishing.
Daily guided tours of Allerton Garden deliver guests to the Mist House, where
water droplets collect on their eyelashes. Ordinarily, moisture-loving species
wouldn’t survive at sea level where rainfall is scant and temperatures high,
but the automated misters replicate the fog drip found at Hawaiian summits.
DeMotta envisions the hapu‘u ferns growing so large that people will have to
duck beneath the fronds, as they would in the forest. “If there’s no wind, this
place gets socked in,” he says. “It’s like being on Mount Wai‘ale‘ale.”