Plant patrol

PUHI — A new program being rolled out this month will help develop stronger biosecurity on the island and prevent invasive species from worming their way to the ‘aina.

The Pono Endorsement Program is the brainchild of Kauai Invasive Species Committee and Plant Pono. Through the program, the organizations will partner with landscape and nursery companies to establish best practices for shielding Kauai from new invasive species.

“It’s a voluntary partnership between Plant Pono, KISC, and the nurseries and landscapers,” said Rachel Smith, spokeswoman for KISC. “It’s non-regulatory, so there’s no reporting to the government, and we are keeping it flexible so it works with what they (landscapers and nurseries) are already doing.”

In order to be Pono Endorsed, companies have to agree to follow five practices: pre-screen all new incoming plants using the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment source locally from other Pono Endorsed businesses, survey all incoming plants from off-island for little fire ants and coqui frogs, and disinfect gear and equipment between sites.

The last requirement is to phase out, within two years, a list of 15 plants that are commonly found to escape backyards.

Smith said KISC will check-up on Pono Endorsed business practices once a year to offer advice and see where help is needed, but the program isn’t rigorous and businesses won’t face penalties for slip-ups or noncompliance with the practices.

“It’s a great opportunity for residents to protect the island,” Smith said. “Landscapers and nurseries, they’re the frontier when it comes to invasive species. They’re the ones that are bringing in the most plants.”

Mike DeMotta, assistant director of living collections for the National Tropical Botanical Garden, said the program is a good first step and it could help prevent future infestations of invasive species — like the gall wasp that took out much of the world’s erythrina trees nearly a decade ago.

The native wiliwili tree — part of the erythrina genius — suffered greatly along with many other varieties of the tree when the tiny wasps showed up on the islands around 2007, DeMotta said.

“No one really knows how they traveled and within two or two and a half years, the gall wasps were everywhere,” DeMotta said. “They were unknown until they hit Singapore and then next thing you know, they were in Hawaii and California.”

The little wasps lay their eggs within the stems and leaves of the trees and then the larvae eat the trees from the inside out, DeMotta explained.

“The plant can’t produce leaves and photosynthesize, so it can’t make energy,” he said.

It took about five years and a few experiments with synthetic nicotine as a pesticide, before the state decided to introduce a specific type of wasp to the area — a wasp that would wipe out the gall wasp.

“Biocontrol is pretty scary, but a lot of research went into it and the carnivorous wasps worked,” DeMotta explained.

The population of erythrina trees at the garden has blossomed once more under the care of NTBG staff.

Though the story has a happy ending, it’s not just gall wasps that threaten plant and animal life on Kauai.

Invasive plants, animals, and pathogens have several avenues into the island — intentional and non-intentional, and both Smith and DeMotta said it’s always a battle to keep them at bay.

One of those tricky plants making its way into residents’ yards is the False Kava plant.

False Kava is remarkably similar to the ‘Awa plant, whose roots are used to make the popular kava tea, and ended up on Hawaii because it was mistaken for it.

“The tea has medicinal benefits and the ‘Awa plant is usually given as a gift, so people are exchanging these plants all the time,” Smith said. “False Kava looks a lot like ‘Awa and they are easy to get mixed up.”

False Kava is extremely invasive, Smith said, and it will easily jump the boundaries of its yard. It grows twice as fast as ‘Awa and reproduces easily — even small pieces of root, leaves and stems can reproduce into new plants.

“It has no medicinal benefits and it takes over everything,” Smith said.

There are subtle differences between the plants, she said. The ‘Awa leaves have a different vein pattern, which is the main distinction between the two. False Kava has a central mid vein on the leaf with smaller veins that branch off the central vein. True ‘Awa has a leaf that originates from the stem-end.

The Pono Endorsement Program will be officially kicking off at the April 16 Garden Fair at Kauai Community College this month. There will be an opportunity to sign up for the Pono Endorsement Program at a booth at the event.

Info: kauaiisc.org

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