Eruption damages endangered plants in lower Puna

  • Ischaemum byrone. (David Eickhoff via DLNR/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • Ischaemum byrone. (Forrest and Kim Starr via DLNR/Special to West Hawaii Today)
  • Cyrtandra nanawaleensis. (Joel Lau via DLNR/Special to West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — The largest populations of two of Hawaii’s endangered plants were buried under lava or scorched by sulfur dioxide fumes amid the ongoing lower East Rift Zone eruption.

The loss highlights the importance of managing other threats to native species across the state and the need to increase resilience of such populations, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Tuesday.

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When the 1,514 acre Malama Ki Forest Reserve and surrounding areas were covered by lava flows, the largest known populations of the Nanawale haʻiwale (Cyrtandra nanawaleensis) and Hilo Ischaemum (Ischaemum byrone) were forever lost.

The Nanawale haʻiwale is a shrub in the African violet family, found only amid the lowland wet forests of Puna. Before the eruption, only 200 mature plants existed in the wild, according to the state. These, representing more than one-third of the known existing plants in Hawaii, were lost to lava flows in the reserve.

Hilo Ischaemum is a native grass found in coastal areas on several islands, but mostly along the coast between Hilo and Puna. An estimated few thousand plants remain in the wild. However, several of the known sites on Hawaii island occurred in areas that are now covered with lava between Kapoho and Opihikao.

This is not the first time Hilo Ischaemum has been damaged by volcanic activity. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the main population occurred at Kamoamoa, which was subsequently covered by lava in the 1990s.

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The reserve also served as a habitat to sub-populations of native forest birds, according to the state.

As the eruption continues, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife staff are preparing to salvage specimens from other sites to ensure the species is not lost to extinction.