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Rare Mauna Loa Silverswords Blooming in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park

June 6, 2014
flower closeup

‘Āhinahina in bloom. NPS Photo/Jay Robinson.

High on the slopes of Mauna Loa within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, unnoticed by the thousands of visitors who flock to the summit of erupting Kīlauea volcano each day, one of the rarest plants on earth is erupting in bloom. A rare ‘āhinahina, or Mauna Loa silversword (Argyroxiphium kauense), has begun its first and last hurrah, producing a spectacular stalk of fragrant flowers before going to seed in a few weeks. Afterwards, this extraordinary plant – found only on the slopes of Mauna Loa – will die.

Mauna Loa silversword blooming

The rare Mauna Loa silversword in bloom, May 15, 2014. NPS Photo/Mark Wasser.

It’s no accident this particular ‘āhinahina is in bloom. It is among 29 large plants that were deliberately planted at a new site near the top of Mauna Loa Road (aka the “Strip Road”) in late January by a contingent of park staff and conservation partners as part of a large-scale effort to reintroduce them to their natural high-elevation habitat, primarily within protected park boundaries. While this individual plant will perish in the coming weeks after it is finished flowering, several more plants are preparing to bloom, and the public is invited to observe them. Signs in the area instruct people to stay behind protective ropes to avoid trampling the plants’ fragile, shallow roots. People can visit on their own, or opt for a ranger-guided program. (Check with rangers at Kīlauea Visitor Center – the guided program happens as scheduling allows). However you decide to visit, please obey all posted signs!

Planting ‘āhinahina on Mauna Loa.

Mark Wasser, a botanist at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, plants a Mauna Loa silversword seedling in the new viewing area, January 2014. NPS Photo/Jay Robinson.

Please stay behind the ropes!

Please obey all signs. NPS Photo/Mark Wasser

Though the historical abundance of the Mauna Loa silversword is uncertain, it is thought that they once numbered in the tens of thousands, based on photographs, sightings and early collections. Today, they are federally listed as endangered, with fewer than 550 plants that occupy a combined area of less than 4 hectares. The culprit? Browsing, trampling, and uprooting by non-native ungulates like cows, pigs, goats and sheep.

The seedlings were grown at the Volcano Rare Plant Facility in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Many agencies form an informal public/private partnership that began in 1998 to re-establish the Mauna Loa  silversword. They include Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, the Volcano Rare Plant Facility of the University of Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i Plant Extinction Prevention Program, Hawai‘i Division of Forestry & Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Three Mountain Alliance, Hawaiian Silversword Foundation, and others.

What the new viewing area looks like. NPS Photo/Mark Wasser

What the new viewing area looks like. NPS Photo/Mark Wasser

The Mauna Loa silversword is its own unique species. The plants that occur in the Ka‘ū District are a unique form and are often referred to as the Ka‘ū silversword. Like the silverswords found on Mauna Kea and Haleakalā, Maui, the Mauna Loa species has exquisite silvery “hairs” that cover and protect its sword-like leaves.  It can grow to nine feet tall, lives 30 years or more, and blooms only once before it dies.

silver hairs and blooms

This blooming beauty from 2012 shows the trademark silvery leaves of the ‘āhinahina. NPS Photo/Mark Wasser

To learn more about the Mauna Loa silversword, and the other endemic plant and animal species that the park works hard to save, see our new brochure, “On the Brink of Extinction.”

Directions to the new Mauna Loa silversword viewing area: turn onto Mauna Loa Road from Highway 11 and head up the paved, one-lane road to where it ends at the Mauna Loa Lookout parking lot (6,662-foot elevation). The viewing area is well-marked, and is west of the parking lot. The short trail to the viewing area starts at the emergency phone. It is approximately a 45-minute drive from the park entrance.

If you have questions about the Mauna Loa silversword restoration project, call Sierra McDaniel or Mark Wasser at 808-985-6097.

NPS Photo by Master Volunteer David Boyle, who reached his 14,000 hour of service!

The native silversword picture wing fly (Trupanea arboreae) explores a Mauna Loa silversword flower. Its larvae feed on the seeds.  NPS photo by Master Volunteer David Boyle, who just completed his 14,000 hour of service!


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  1. Open Thread, Thursday 19 June 2014 | For God, Family, and Country

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