Growth Industry

Restoring native Hawaiian forests means you need native Hawaiian plants - hundreds of thousands of them
Story by Rachel Davies. Photos by Sue Hudelson.

Last April helicopters ferried thirty-five thousand seedlings to a remote slope high on the leeward side of Haleakalā, where a dryland forest once stretched across the land. The seedlings were tiny native trees: koa, ‘ōhi‘a lehua, māmane and ‘a‘ali‘i.

Volunteers from the Kupu Hawai‘i Youth Conservation Corps in conjunction with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) each day rose at dawn to plant the trees, working at the spectacular rate of 2,800 seedlings per day. Today the fledgling forest is flourishing in its new home, the Nakula Natural Area Reserve (NAR), a dramatic 1,400-acre incline surrounded by eight-foot-high fencing to protect the baby trees from the pigs and goats that once destroyed the forest.

The Nakula regeneration project is only one of many happening all over Hawai‘i: The islands of the archipelago comprise approximately four million acres, and of these around half a million acres can be said to be involved in some kind of active replanting or reforestation process—though the numbers are difficult to accurately estimate and even the definitions of what constitutes a native plant and reforestation are complex. But even if absolute precision is lacking, the picture is clear: Reforesting requires an abundance of cooperation, collaboration, ingenuity and expertise among various agencies and landowners. Existing forests must be protected, feral ungulates removed or managed, invasive plants controlled, land cleared, seeds collected, trees grown and funding secured. Sheri Mann, forestry program manager for DOFAW, notes in a broad understatement, “There are many moving parts.”

To complicate matters further, the hundreds of thousands of native plant seedlings that are needed for reforestation cannot be bought at Home Depot, ordered on Amazon or found in any kind of a catalog. Instead, state and private nurseries have sprung up to supply them. The two largest private nurseries, O‘ahu’s Hui Kū Maoli Ola and Maui’s Native Nursery, produce around half a million native plants a year between them. Ho‘olawa Farms on Maui produces around a hundred thousand native plants. Nurseries supported by DOFAW and the Fish and Wildlife Service on O‘ahu, Hawai‘i Island, Maui and Kaua‘i collectively grow over three hundred thousand. The three big national parks (Kalaupapa, Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Haleakalā) have their own nurseries, as does the US Army. It is clear that the mammoth task of generating native plants for Hawai‘i’s native forests is in many hands.

Ethan Romanchak is a key figure in the field. “With natives there’s no template,” he explains. Romanchak grew many of the seedlings for the Nakula NAR; he is a co-owner of Native Nursery in lower Kula. He and his business partner Jonathan Keyser thrive on the challenges involved in growing natives. “Every day we are like, ‘Oh man! That’s a new problem we have to solve! We’ve never sprouted this before! No one’s ever done that!’” says Romanchak. The pair have come a long way since they opened their picturesque four-acre nursery in 2003. “Ten years ago we’d literally jump for joy if we got three to sprout out of a flat,” says Romanchak. “But now Big Island sent us forty pounds of ‘iliahi [sandalwood] seed for a conservation project, and”—he gestures triumphantly toward flats filled with green shoots—“there’s 7,500 sandal-wood sprouting. We nailed it.”

Native Nursery’s trees are known for their immaculate quality: They’re clean, vigorous and healthy. No surprise, really. Dedication and focus can be seen in every facet of the nursery. The place is spotlessly clean: Dibble tubes and racks are power-washed and sanitized between plantings; on the gently sloping grounds there’s not a weed in sight. That’s vital, says Romanchak. “If we have weeds that blow into our crops, then our crops become too dirty to sell. So everything we do here”—he clicks his fingers and grins—“has to be perfect.”

Ethan Romanchak (above) and partner Jonathan Keyser co-founded Native Nursery on Maui over a decade ago. Since then they have grown hundreds of thousands of native plants used for reforestation.

The long benches, fitted with a series of tubes that supply water and nutrients to the seedlings, were designed and refined by Keyser and Romanchak. Keyser lifts a baby ‘ōhi‘a to reveal the structure underneath. There’s a plug, which allows the bench to be flooded and the plants watered; the bench is very slightly tilted to guide excessliquid to one corner. “It’s really important that it drains,” explains Keyser, “otherwise you’ll get creatures, bacteria, fungal infection.” The entire nursery is soil- and compost-free; instead the plants grow in an aseptic coco coir, peat moss and perlite mixture to keep them free from nematodes, tiny worms that inhabit almost every part of the planet; the introduction of foreign nematodes into pristine native forests could be a disaster. The plants are fed thirteen essential nutrients and get sun by day and cool mountain air at night. “Our theory is the healthier the plant, the better success it’s going to have out there,” says Keyser. Romanchak grins again and adds, “You wouldn’t start a hike on an empty stomach.”

When Native Nursery was founded twelve years ago, the team planted a baby koa tree on the land in front of their shed. Today it is a voluminous, flourishing tree. Italian-born Emanuel Mancianti, who has been with the team eight years, sits beneath it transplanting sprouted ‘ōhi‘a seeds into dibble tubes. The ‘ōhi‘a are as tiny as alfalfa sprouts, but Mancianti expertly guides their straggly, whisper-thin roots into the perlite mixture and sets each one in a tray alongside a thousand others. In approximately ten months, once these ‘ōhi‘a have grown big and strong enough, they will be planted in the Pu‘u O ‘Umi NAR on Hawai‘i Island as part of a DOFAW reforestation project.

For native plants to have the best chance of success, the seeds from which they’re grown must be collected from the area where they are to be planted. Hawai‘i is a patchwork of distinct microclimates in which specific ecosystems have evolved; the flora and fauna that emerged in each are the best equipped to flourish in each—a fact that adds an even deeper layer of complexity to growing native plants. Native Nursery is currently growing eight varieties of koa for eight reforestation projects around the Islands, with seed sourced from each of those locations.

To keep track of things, the team employs a rigorous labeling system. “They all look the same, but you’ve got to know where they are from and where they are going,” says Romanchak. “If we drop them and lose the labels, then we throw them away because we don’t know.”

The seed-gathering process can be extremely tricky. Native trees often remain in hard-to-access places, places even goats and pigs can’t reach. Also, their flowering and seeding can happen in a short window or sometimes not at all if weather conditions have been unfavorable or the plants are unhealthy. Christopher Warren of the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project travels up into the mist of the Kula Forest Reserve several times a year looking for māmane, ‘iliahi and ‘ōhelo seeds. Remarkably, Warren can spot a tiny māmane seedpod on a far tree from the moving van, a skill he attributes to plenty of experience: He’s been in conservation all his life and is now 33. He can also hear the call of the endangered ‘i‘iwi and ‘apapane among the hundreds of other sounds and spends much of the trip making kissing, tweeting clucking sounds to the skies, inviting the birds to sing back to him.

On today’s seed-gathering expedition he brings along volunteers German Gordo and Ian Vogel. The trio mount a steep, craggy hill, navigating treacherous knee-deep holes to reach a stand of māmane trees. Once there Warren plucks a long, brown seedpod, shakes it and smiles to hear seeds inside. He cracks it open. The seeds are brown, not quite ripe: They will still germinate, but had they matured to a bright yellow, the success rate would have been much higher. “It’s really hard to fit the plants’ schedule in with ours,” Warren laughs. “The seeds are unpredictable. They ripen when they like.”

Native Nursery’s wealth of native plants includes the ‘a‘ali‘i seen here in the foreground. “‘A‘ali‘i is the most common shrub species used for reforestation,” says Romanchak, “because it’s tough, fast-growing, nothing chews on it and nothing kills it.

Because seeds can be unripe at one elevation but perfectly ripe a little higher up, Warren returns to the van and continues to climb until he spies another grove of māmane trees. These are covered in an abundance of pods. Picking a pod from the top of the tree and delivering it safely to the ground is an art that Warren has perfected. He plucks them with a picker, making it look effortless; the volunteers pick them up. “Ideally we get seeds from as many different individuals as possible for greater genetic diversity, but sometimes there’s a tree with lots of seeds,” he explains as he brings down great handfuls of pods with his picker. “But if you keep coming up to the forest reserve, you get more chances.”

Today the team picks two gallons of māmane seeds, fails to find ripe ‘ōhelo berries at any elevation and moves higher still looking for ‘iliahi. All three clamber up a sharp incline to examine a scattering of low bent trees with a brace of star-shaped red flowers, the rare Haleakalā variety of ‘iliahi. They find twenty ripe, rich purple seeds, a harvest that leaves Warren very satisfied. Driving back down through the clouds to deliver the seeds to Native Nursery, Warren talks about his work. He prefers to describe it as “building forests” rather than reforestation, he says, noting the complexity and scope of the task. Indeed, the Nakula NAR was built from the ground up; the land was cleared before the native trees went in, and so far they are doing wonderfully. “Our survivorship to this point is better than I could have ever dreamed,” beams Warren. “We have 80 to 90 percent after the first year.”

For native plants that are extremely rare, finding seeds is of course even more difficult. Many times such plants are reachable only by helicopter or rappelling down a cliff; precious seeds collected from them are taken to state-funded rare plant facilities such as the Olinda Rare Plant Facility on Maui. There, when the seeds arrive at the nursery, propagator Anna Palomino learns all she can from the collectors about the environments from which the seeds came—things like the quality of the soil and the canopy. “Many of the plants I’m actually seeing for the first time because I don’t go out into those areas,” she explains. “I’m hoping to give them the same conditions in the nursery.” Each plant gets one-on-one care, hand-watering and fertilization from Palomino and an AmeriCorps intern named Taimiroa Pajimola. “The plants get a lot of attention,” says Palomino. “I make sure I provide them with everything possible to keep them alive. They’re just so important.”

When finding seeds is impossible, propagators employ methods such as grafting, working with tissue culture and air-layering. Palomino is, for example, nurturing a tiny, rare alani, a species that had only one plant left in the wild on Maui before restoration efforts occurred. The alani was propagated from a tree growing at the Fleming Arboretum in ‘Ulupalakua using the air-layering process. (To make an air layer, a cut is made on the side of a girdled mature tree branch and a hormone applied to encourage the growth of new roots; the area is wrapped in moss and then plastic, and in six months to a year, when the roots have grown from the side of the branch, the area can be severed and planted.)

Anna Palomino of the Olinda Rare Plant Facility holds a nehe, or Melanthera kamolensis. When seeds arrive at the facility, Palomino learns all she can from the collectors about the environments from which the seeds came. Then she replicates the growing conditions to help the plants thrive.

Behind Palomino, stretching into the distance of the shady greenhouse, is her miniature green forest: a collection of rare native mints, a native carrot with a thick sprouting of green fronds, a ball of luminous pale-green spikes called ‘āhinahina, a recently discovered rare Cyanea with sharp irregular spikes covering its stem and a native begonia with furry leaves and pink teardrop-shaped flowers.

“It’s the most showy flower we have in here right now,” laughs Palomino; a recent period of outplanting has left the nursery empty of the flowers and many of the impressive-looking Cyanea that often fill it. “We all work together to get things done because it takes that amount of effort,” she says, reflecting on the complexity of the task in which her nursery plays a vital part, and the huge team of which she’s a part. Smiling shyly, she adds, “It takes so much heart sometimes to work with these plants, and—this might sound silly—but I do think that the plants pick up on that.” HH

Story by Rachel Davies. Photos by Sue Hudelson