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Vol. 17, no. 2
April / May 2014


Down From the Clouds 

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 efforts.

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.”