ALULA - THE BRIGHAMIA PLANT
Growing on steep cliffs of several Hawaiian Islands is the alula,
an unusual native Hawaiian plant that is endemic to Hawai`i (lives
only in Hawai`i). The plant's scientific name is Brighamia, a
name that honors William Brigham, first Director of the Bishop
Museum. There are two different species or types of alula. One
of these grows only on Kaua`i, but it used to be found on Ni`ihau
too. The other grows on the north shore of Moloka`i, and it probably
once lived on Lana`I and Maui. The alula has a very strange shape,
somewhat like a cabbage on top of a
| bowling pin or a baseball bat. Some
scientists believe that the bottom of the stem is rounded so the
plant can rock back and forth when strong winds blow against the
cliffs where it lives. This plant does no look much like its rela-tives,
the Lobelioids (Low-be-lee-oids). Scientists around the world are
curious about Hawaii`s Lobelioids. There are over 100 dif-ferent
types that are not found any-where else in the world. If they're
not found anywhere else, then where did they come from? Scientists
believe that five different types of Lobelioids reached the islands
long, long ago, maybe after birds ate their seeds. Over Millions
of years, they slowly changed, and many new types formed. So, they
didn't come from anywhere else, they are true native Hawaiian plants
that evolved right here in the islands.
NECTAR FOR BIRDS
Haha is an old Hawaiian name for Lobelioids. Ancient Hawaiian
bird catchers who collected
||brightly colored feathers from forest birds, knew
the haha well. Most of there plants have long, curved flowers, a
perfect fit for the curved beaks of birds such as the mamo and `I`iwi.
Bird catchers (kia manu) used to hide beneath the haha plants, holding
their fingers around the bottom of a flower. When the bird reaches
down into the haha flowers to take nectar, the catchers would pinch
the flower, and catch the bird by the tip of its beak.
Flowers of the alula are quite different than the curved flowers
of its relatives, the haha. Alula flowers are long and straight,
with five yellowishwhite petals at the tip. The lower part of
the flower, called the corolla, is a hollow tube, with sweet nectar
at the bottom. This tube can be as much as six inches long. Scientists
believe that moths, not birds, would sip the nectar from the alula
flowers. A type of moth known as hawk moths, for example, have
long tongues that can reach way down into a flower to take nectar.
WHERE ARE THE MOTHS?
When birds, moths, or bees reach down into flowers to take the
nectar, they carry pollen onto the flower. The pollen is needed
to help the flower make its seeds. If a flower does not get pollen,
then it won't make any seeds. Most of the alula plants that grow
out on the steep cliffs have this problem. Often, the flowers
wilt away without making any seeds. Scientists believe the moth
that once fed on the alula has become very rare, so the flowers
don't get the pollen they need, and they make just a few seeds,
or none at all. Because of this, as the old alula plants die,
there are no seeds to sprout and make new plants. Now, the alula
is very rare - an endangered species..
SCIENTISTS TO THE RESCUE
When scientists discovered the alula plants had problems producing
seeds, they thought they could help. Using ropes to climb down
the steep cliffs of Moloka's north shore and Kauai's Na Pali Coast,
they carefully made their way to the plants natural habitat (home).
Here, they took out a tiny brush to pollinate the flowers, in
place of the moths that weren't doing their job. It worked! The
alula plants that were pollinated by hand grew lots of seeds,
and most of these were collected to be grown in a plant nursery.
Hundreds of alula seedlings were grown in the nursery at National
Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on Kaua'i. Then, workers from
the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife came in to help with
the project. They brought the seedlings to Kilauea Point National
Wildlife Refuge on Kauai's north shore, and worked together with
the staff and volunteers to plant the seedlings in this protected
envi-ronment. Although some didn't survive, many of the alula
are growing quite well, and with hand polli-nation producing seeds
of their own. There seeds were collected and sprouted, and are
now growing in the Refuge nursery. Cliff areas and hillsides around
Kilauea Point should provide good habitat for future plantings.
ENDANGERED SPECIES NEED HELP
The alula is just one of more than 200 native Hawaiian plants
on the endangered species list. Over 100 of these have less than
40 individuals surviving in the wild. All it would take is one
fire, one hurri-cane, or one bulldozer to wipe out some of these
species. In the case of alula, scientists believe part of the
problem is that too much native forest has disappeared in the
plants' natural habitat; maybe this is why moths that pollinate
these flowers are not able to do their job. Protecting native
forests provides many other benefits to people, above and beyond
providing a home for Hawaii's unique plant and ani-mal life. Native
forests are a place of beauty and recreation, they hold soil and
prevent erosion, and they help rainwater to soak into the ground,
acting like a giant sponge. That water eventually becomes our
drinking water. And who knows what new medicines might be found
in the hundreds of native plant species found only in Hawai'i.
Endangered plants such as the alula are able to survive because
peo-ple were interested enough to study them, and cared enough
to do something to help save them. You, too, can make a difference.
Make sure you never start a wild fire, and don't spread the seeds
of harm-ful weeds from place to place or island to islands. By
studying and learning about native plants and animals, maybe you
will help save an endangered species someday.