Talk Story: David Lorence

LIHUE — When it comes to identifying rare plants, David Lorence is among the best in the business.

It’s only befitting that he has one named after him.

Labordia lorenciana, a rare shrub or small tree in the strychnine family, is known only from the upper Kawaiiki in the Na Pali-Kona Forest Reserve. The species was first collected in 1998 and named in 2007. The plants are unisexual, that is separate male and female plants are required for seed set, and successfully cultivated at NTBG, according to Lorence.

Lorence is the director of science and conservation at NTBG. He directs the research library and herbarium at NTBG headquarters, serves on the board of the Heliconia Society International and is editor of the garden’s publication, Allertonia.

The week, The Garden Island chats with Lorence about his time at NTBG, his love of plants and the free lecture he will lead beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Kauai Community College.

The Garden Island: First, can you tell our readers a little bit about your background and how you ended up at the National Tropical Botanical Garden?

David Lorence: I grew up on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin and have long been interested in nature, but was especially intrigued by tropical plants. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in botany, I spent five years as a Peace Corps volunteer on Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean where I met my wife, Ginette.

I went to graduate school in St. Louis at Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden and obtained my Ph.D. in plant science. After that, my first job was at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where we lived for six years. My wife, two young daughters and I moved to Kauai in March 1987 when I joined the NTBG staff. It was like a dream come true, especially since living in the Hawaiian Islands was something I always wanted to do.

TGI: What are your roles as director of science and conservation? Take us through your typical day.

DL: It varies a lot and each day is different, but typically I spend mornings catching up on email and doing administrative duties and paperwork for a few hours. NTBG receives many requests for plant identifications, images, literature and materials such as herbarium specimens, seeds and special research materials such as leaf tissue samples for genetic analysis. Our Science and Conservation Department is based in the Botanical Research Center and fulfills most of these requests.

I either pass on requests to staff or make the collections myself. My department oversees NTBG’s seed bank, library and herbarium collection of 72,000 dried, pressed and mounted plant specimens. We often give tours to students and other visitors and teach classes. Meeting and communicating with my staff are an important part of the day. I do much writing and editing, mainly plant descriptions for various flora projects, and am editor of our in-house journal, Allertonia.

TGI: What’s the best part of your job?

DL: My background is in plant taxonomy, or classification and naming of plants, so I enjoy doing plant identifications. Naming and describing new plant species from Hawaii and other regions is very rewarding, since most are very rare and it gives them an identity. Photos or specimens of “mystery plants” are often sent to me, and it’s always fun and challenging to identify them.

I also enjoy going down into our McBryde and Allerton Gardens to work with the living collections. This can involve identifying plants that may have lost their tags or documenting a flowering or fruiting plant by collecting specimens for the herbarium. Field work and hiking are a great pleasure, of course, but my schedule doesn’t permit much of that anymore.

TGI: How do you choose to describe NTBG?

DL: NTBG was chartered by Congress 50 years ago and designated to be a world resource in tropical botany dedicated to research conservation and education. We have four gardens in Hawaii and one in Florida, each with its own special history, surroundings, growing conditions and plant collections. Visitors to NTBG can see tropical plants from around the world and some of Hawaii’s rarest flora at a single location and in the space of a short time.

TGI: NTBG is a special, magical place. What about it do you find most amazing?

DL: The plants! NTBG’s gardens hold rich living collections from Hawaii and many other tropical areas around the world. Each plant has its own story.

TGI: What about the island of Kauai? Any favorite plants or places?

DL: Kauai is such a beautiful island with numerous lovely spots from coast to summit. Hiking the Na Pali Coast is always a joy, especially the trail to Hanakapiai Falls. The Mahaulepu coastline is spectacular. I’ve always loved hiking the Pihea Trail along the edge of Kalalau Valley and into the Alakai wilderness area — it’s a magical experience.

TGI: I understand you will be leading a free lecture Tuesday at Kauai Community College. What can people expect?

DL: I’ll be taking the audience on a virtual tour through parts of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and ending up in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. Borneo is the world’s third largest island with an incredible diversity of plant and animal life which is rapidly disappearing due to habitat destruction. I’ll focus on gingers and related families in the order Zingiberales, since NTBG is a conservation center for these plants, and discuss the role of botanical gardens in plant conservation.

TGI: What do you view as the single biggest threat to the island’s native plant populations?

DL: Clearly there are two major threats to the Hawaiian flora. The first is introduced ungulates, namely pigs, goats and deer, which can devastate native plant communities. There’s a long tradition of hunting in Hawaii, and hunters can be instrumental in helping control the ungulates in certain areas. Fencing some sensitive areas is another option, but it is expensive.

The second major threat is non-native invasive plant species that can out-compete the slower growing and more sensitive native Hawaiian plants that evolved here in isolation and away from competitive continental plants and animals.

TGI: You’ve done fieldwork all over the world. Any favorite places? Where does Kauai rank on your list?

DL: I love traveling, but I would have to say that tropical islands are my favorite places. Each island is unique with its own special geography, endemic plant, animal and marine life, and of course its special people and culture. The high volcanic islands with cool mountain forests are the most interesting and diverse. Two of my favorite islands are Mauritius and Réunion in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. Kosrae, Pohnpei and Palau in Micronesia are favorites not only because of their plant life, but they also have spectacular coral reefs and marine life. I can’t forget the rugged, spectacular Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia because I’ve nearly completed a Marquesas flora project. And in Hawaii, Kauai is at the top of my list.

TGI: When not working, where do you like to spend your time?

DL: I like to work in my yard taking care of the fruit trees, gingers, heliconias, vegetables and other plants that my wife and I grow for food and pleasure. I also love to snorkel and scuba dive. For exercise I walk down in the McBryde Garden most afternoons after work. My wife and I enjoy ballroom dancing with the Kauai Ballroom Dance Club, a county sponsored program.

TGI: What is one thing most people don’t know about NTBG that you think they should?

DL: Because our name begins with the word “National,” many people believe we are a governmental organization. That’s not true, since NTBG is a not-for-profit organization with no direct federal or state funding. Most of our funding comes from donations from our supporters, grants, memberships and our tour program. We truly need and appreciate the public’s support to carry out our mission.


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