Ka palupalu o Kanaloa (Kanaloa kahoolawensis) is one of 10 most critically endangered plants and animals in the world to be impacted by climate change, according to a December 2021 report by the Endangered Species Coalition. The species was declared extinct in the wild in 2015. Over the past several years, experts at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa have brought the Ka palupalu o Kanaloa back from the edge of disappearing from existence.
Ka palupalu o Kanaloa is a densely branched shrub with thin oval leaves and produces large clusters of small white flowers. The plant was historically found to grow on the rocky cliffs of Kahoʻolawe, but fossilized pollen from the species has been found on Oʻahu, Maui, and Kauaʻi. Two Ka palupalu o Kanaloa plants were discovered in 1992 growing on a sea stack off the coast of Kahoʻolawe. Fortunately, seeds were collected from the last two plants before they died in 2015.
Conservation efforts through propagation to save Ka palupalu o Kanaloa were led by Doug Okamoto, a greenhouse technician with UH Mānoa’s Lyon Arboretum, and Anna Palomino from UH Mānoa’s Center for Conservation Research and Training, who is also a Department of Land and Natural Resources Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DLNR-DOFAW) and Plant Extinction Prevention Program horticulturist.
Palomino was able to germinate and grow seedlings, a first for Ka palupalu o Kanaloa in 24 years. Okamoto became the first person ever to produce rooted cuttings of Ka palupalu o Kanaloa. Through the efforts of Palomino and Okamoto, there are now 23 plants resulting from hand pollination that are growing and producing seeds. For now, the species will live outside of their native habitat which is being greatly affected by climate change.
“There are so many other Hawaiian species in a similar situation as Kanaloa. With Kanaloa, at least we have begun to have some hope of its future survival,” Okamoto said. “The cooperation of the many different organizations involved in the Kanaloa project can be used as a model in helping in the recovery of other critically endangered plants.”
Experts said the bigger challenge is addressing the impacts of climate change, preventing plants like Ka palupalu o Kanaloa from being returned to their native habitat. It is a problem not only for the endemic plants and animals of Hawaiʻi, but also for all inhabitants worldwide.
The dire situation of this species, as well as others, requires a dedicated network of organizations working together to prevent Hawaiʻi’s critically endangered plants from disappearing forever. Along with UH, other organizations such as the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission, Plant Extinction Prevention Program and the Maui Nui Botanical Garden, are involved in the rescue of Ka paluplau o Kanaloa. These organizations are all a part of the Laukahi: The Hawaiʻi Plant Conservation Network.
This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Building a Sustainable and Resilient Campus Environment: Within the Global Sustainability and Climate Resilience Movement (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.