Think Hawaii and a lush tourist paradise of exotic papaya and Banyan, bougainvillea blossoms and sweet smelling jasmine comes to mind. The only thing wrong with this picture is that none of these species is native to the Island state.
A volcanic chain in the North Pacific Ocean 2,000 nautical miles southwest of California, Hawaii has more biodiversity than any other U.S. state. It also leads the nation with 282 federally listed rare and endangered species. Ninety percent are plants, which have either been crowded out by invasive species, lost in the built environment or overgrazed by the island chain's feral pigs and goats.
Sixty Hawaiian native plants are the centerpiece of "Our Nation's Crown Jewels: Rare and Endangered Species of Hawaii," a new exhibit at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington.
The U.S. Botanic Garden is the closest many visitors will ever get to Hawaii. But they will see what few tourists in Hawaii ever see: native Hawaiian plants.
Patricia Rouen and Michelle Clark, volunteers with the Kauai Native Plants Society and organizers of the U.S. Botanic Garden exhibit say the native trees, shrubs, plants and flowers represented here emerged by accident over thousands of years in the forest, grassland and desert landscapes of Hawaii.
"And they got there on their own either by birds coming and dropping seeds or they washed up on the shore. And, they were allowed to evolve without any outside influences other than that particular climate," said Ms. Rouen.
"Another thing that makes them very special is the fact the plants made it there under extraordinary circumstances," added Ms. Clark. "The closest landmass is about 2,000 miles [3200 kilometers] away, and to see what they have evolved into is just extraordinary!"
"Some of them look positively primeval, they just look different," Ms. Rouen said. "And, they are very charismatic plants, for those of us who love plants. You become enamored of them after a while!"
And, just what is a charismatic plant?
Michelle Clark heads straight for the Haleakala Silver Sword as if it were her best friend.
"It is a threatened plant," she said. "There are about 50,000 of them left and you can see from its silvery leaves, it grows into a very large plant with a huge rosette that spouts off the top. It is special because it is a fine example of adaptive radiation, which is the process by which a single species comes and evolves into many different species."
"[It is interesting to] see the moonscape where these plants grow," Ms. Rouen said. "It is high up, beyond the tree level. And so you have to imagine a dark lava ground surrounding it, and then you have these iridescent silver spears.
"That is why it called the Silver Sword," she continued. "They do get large. These are small examples. And when the moon is full they glow ... There is another very unusual one down here that looks like a cabbage on a baseball bat."
"You can only find this plant on two of the islands right now," Ms. Clark said.
"They do pollinate them by hand," added Ms. Rouen. "We have an individual who helped us put this program together on Kauai. His name is Ken Wood, and he is know for repelling down cliff sides and dangling hundreds of feet over the ocean to pollinate these plants with a Q-tip."
"And then he returns and collects the seeds taken to facilities like the National Tropical Botanical Garden and they are propagated, and the hope is that we will be able to reintroduce these plants into the wild," explained Ms. Clark.
There is a photograph of the brighmamia insignis known in Hawaii as a HaHa or Olula. Its larger-than-life portrait is part of a companion photo exhibit that features the work of Susan Middleton and David Littschwager.
"You can see how this plant might live," said Mr. Littschwager. "It has a really strong trunk. It grows on the cliffs of Molokai, which are 3,000 feet [914 meters] tall. They are the tallest sea cliffs in the world. This has to be a really strong plant. And, also its pollinator had to be a really strong flyer because of the wind in that place and these flowers are six to eight inches long."
The photograph tells a story about what is happening to the native species in Hawaii.
"I think the story that it tells is that these native plants and animals that live in Hawaii, that evolved there, are under siege because the ecosystem of which they are a part, their habitat has been disintegrated," said Susan Middleton. "What we are trying to do with our photographs and what the exhibit is intended to do is to provide a way people can have direct contact with these native plants. [And] hopefully we can come together as a human community to conserve and preserve them as well as enjoy them because they are so beautiful."
"One hopes that you can create some sort of connection with somebody who sees the picture, who now knows about this plant, knows this story and wants to know more and wants to participate in the solution," concluded Mr. Littschwager.
The photographers say their pictures of the rare and endangered plants of Hawaii foreshadow the loss of species elsewhere around the globe. And they say the exhibit is a call to action for all nations to protect their unique natural heritage.