Rare plant research expands

  • Jessica Else/The Garden Island

    Many rare plants are preserved at National Tropical Botanical Garden, and the expansion of the Lyon Arboretum’s Micropropagation Laboratory on Oahu helps with the plant saving mission.

LIHUE — Rare plants on Kauai will get a boost from the expansion of the Lyon Arboretum’s Micropropagation Laboratory on Oahu, which was completed at the end of January.

The 4,081-square-foot Hawaiian Rare Plant Program Micropropagation Facility doubles the growing space and improves lab facilities, according to a news release from the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum.

The $3.6 million project began in June 2016, and the laboratory is able to house 33,000 plants.

The National Tropical Botanical Garden, headquartered on Kauai, has collaborated with the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum’s Hawaiian Rare Plant Program for decades according to NTBG staff with the mission to save plants.

“We write grants together to fund collaborative projects. We reciprocate seed collections between our seed banks. We share data and co-author popular articles and research papers. We co-organize meetings and conferences,” said NTBG’s Seed Bank and Laboratory Manger, Dustin Wolkis.

The expansion of the micropropagation laboratory will allow for growth in native plant preservation and the Hawaiian Rare Plant Program focuses on saving plants with fewer than 50 individuals left in the wild.

Often dubbed “The Endangered Species Capital of the World,” Hawaii is home to more than 40 percent of all threatened and endangered plants. It is estimated that today there are about 1,400 plant taxa (populations that include species, subspecies and varieties) native to Hawaii and 90 percent of those are found nowhere else in the world, according to the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Climate change and rising temperatures are currently threatening many of the ecosystems that house these plants, a challenge highlighted by the first panel discussion of an ongoing NTBG/Kauai Community College series called “Earth Matters,” which is part of a Department of Land and Natural Resources TV special entitled “Rising Seas in Hawaii”.

Maggie Sporck-Koehler, botanist with the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife, lent her plant expertise to the January panel discussion, pointing out threats to native plants like invasive species, fire and erosion.

“At this state, we’re talking already about what actions are needed to continue doing conservation work in light of climate-change threats,” Sporck-Koehler said during the discussion. “We’re looking at predicted impacts to provide guidance for our management and to incorporate some of these actions into our recovery plans for certain species.”

On Kauai, NTBG is home to around 80,000 dried plant specimens and to a seed bank that houses around 3 million seeds — but not all plants can be preserved in those ways.

That’s where the micropropagation laboratory comes into play.

“For species’ seeds that can’t be banked conventionally, the National Tropical Botanical Garden sends material to The Micropropagation Laboratory for ex situ conservation (preservation outside of natural habitats),” Wolkis said.

In addition to more space for seed preservation, the new micropropagation laboratory is a place for the public to learn about rare plant protection and has public viewing options that don’t affect the ongoing research inside the laboratory.

As of Jan. 29, the moving process was the last step to complete before the facility is operational, which means moving plant material, equipment and staff into the lab.

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