The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Plants

The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Plants

O ne day last month on the Pacific island of Kauai, Steve Perlman was ready to throw himself off a cliff. In a blue t-shirt and cargo pants, Perlman, a botanist, was preparing to lower himself on a rope into Kalalau Valley Rim, a steep piece of land with neither hiking paths nor access roads. The rim sits inside Na Pali Coast State Park, where tourists come to see the rocky hillsides carved away by the Pacific. Where they don’t come is to the rocky hillsides inland that are covered by plants and, more frequently, hungry goats.

Perlman had fixed his eyes on one plant below, a small green specimen that seems to blend in with the flora around it. It’s known as the ale (pronounced ah-lay) or Plantago priceps, a flowering plant that belongs to the plantain family. Even most Hawaiians have never seen it. That’s mostly because only a few dozen of the plants still exist.

By virtue of its geographic isolation, Hawaii has some of the world’s most unique plants. Plants generally spread across continents over a period of centuries. Hawaii’s took the route less traveled, floating across the ocean or hitching a ride in the droppings of long-migrating birds. The state has 1,200 native species and 90 percent of them are endemic, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world.

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Such an impressive superlative is at the same time a liability. Also because of Hawaii’s isolation, there’s nowhere for endemic species to go when threatened by invaders like goats, rats, or ivies, all of which have been brought to the islands by humans. Of the 1,200 endemic species on Hawaii, 100 have already been driven to extinction by invaders. Hundreds of others are on the endangered species list. Of all the plants listed as endangered by the U.S. Department of Interior, 42 percent of them are Hawaiian.

Perlman is a botanist with the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a research institute created by congressional charter in 1964. The garden sits on one of the most pristine pieces of land imaginable, thriving with tropical shrubs and towering trees, cut apart by a river that leads out to the ocean. In 1992, Steven Spielberg brought his crew to the garden to film Jurassic Park. A decade later, Johnny Depp wandered around the same garden as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Movies are fun when they come through, but most of Perlman’s time goes toward a serious—and sometimes seriously hard to explain—project. He used to tell people he wanted to collect the genetic material of hard-to-find plants that had trouble surviving when pitted against a growing number of invaders. Then he figured it’d be easier if he just changed the name of his research. Now it’s known as Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program.

No one knows the backwoods of Hawaii quite like Perlman. By definition, rare plants are hard to find. Many of the surviving 900 or so he’s found on long hikes through canyons or up hillsides. Sometimes he takes kayaks out to remote jetties or hires a helicopter to reach inaccessible canyons.

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For only a few weeks a year, Plantago princeps—the plant Perlman saw on the side of the canyon—produces fruit. With its fruit are small seeds that are a sort of insurance policy to keep a plant like Plantago alive—perhaps in the lab, ideally even back in the wild if it can be transplanted. Location doesn’t matter as much as simply having its roots buried somewhere, and keeping it healthy enough to photosynthesize.

Over the course of his career, Perlman has seen plants go extinct (20 by his count). “It can be deeply depressing to watch a species that had evolved over millions of years take its last breath in front of your eyes,” Perlman said one day last month. After episodes like these, he usually takes his hat off for a moment of silence. Other times he has gone to a bar.

There’s a practical reason to save rare plants. Of all of the plants on Earth—an estimated 400,000 species—only about one percent have ever been studied for their biomedical potential. Earlier this year, an Indian plant compound known as gedunin that had long been used to treat malaria and inflammation was found to be a possible antidote to the growth of cancer, too. In Samoa, a plant known as mamala has been analyzed for its potential as a treatment for AIDS. Botany can be a discipline of known unknowns. Researchers know there are keys, clues, and cures in plants that simply haven’t been studied yet.

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“We’ll never really know what a lot of these plants can do if they disappear,” Perlman said while behind the wheel of an open-topped SUV near Kauai’s Waimea Canyon. In other words, saving plants now could save human lives later.

The work of preventing extinction never really ends. If anything, it only gets more demanding as Hawaii’s climate changes and local goats get hungrier and hungrier. In the next few months, Perlman and other scientists who work with the extinction program plan to visit the other Hawaiian islands—places like Oahu where thousands of tourists tromp each year, and Molokai, the much more sparsely visited isle to the east.

In a field of work that can be more depressing than full of rewards, there are still occasional moments of genuine surprise. A few years ago, Perlman was hiking near the top of Kauai’s Mt. Kapalaoa. At 2,600 feet above sea level, the peak is unforgiving, covered in places with steep volcanic rocks, many dating back to the early formation of the six-million-year-old island.

As he wandered, Perlman came across a plant he didn’t recognize. It was later named Cyanea kolekoleensis, or simply in Hawaiian, haha. Then he found another called Labordia tinifolia var wahiawaensis, a plant with leaves covered in shiny varnish. In all, the botanist who spends his days trying to convince people that plants are disappearing forever ended up discovering four new species no one had ever heard of before. Death, on occasion, has moments of rebirth.