Saving seeds

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island file

    Dustin Wolkis

KALAHEO — More than eight million ohia tree seeds are now safely tucked away in different research centers as part of an ongoing effort to save the native Hawaiian tree.

About 5.6 million of those are being stored at the National Tropical Botanical Garden seed bank on Kauai alongside millions of other seeds from some of the rarest plants on Earth.

They’re stored in what can best be described as high-tech filing cabinets, stacked in rows alongside NTBG’s collection of 80,000 dried plant specimens. Rare plant books dot the empty spaces. Artwork and photography of Hawaii’s endangered plants and animals dot the walls.

The place has a general ambiance of discovery and preservation. Volunteers can get involved with labeling, sorting and storing, and researchers are busy in the laboratory finding the best ways to store seeds and promote longevity.

It’s an environment already set up for the waves of ohia seeds coming in as part of the E Mau Ana Ka Ohia project, supported in part by the Hawaii Tourism Authority and NTBG.

And it’s about more than just tucking away seeds, according to Dustin Wolkis, seed bank and laboratory manager.

“Working with partners from around the state in the strategic seed collection of ohia means we’re not just banking seeds, we’re providing a genetic safety net to ensure ohia genetic diversity isn’t lost to ROD (rapid ohia death),” Wolkis said.

They’re also contributing to research on how to strengthen the trees already in Hawaii’s forests.

“We have started sending Kauai endemic taxa to Lisa Keith’s lab at the USDA Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research center for resistance testing,” Wolkis said.

While researchers and scientists are preserving seeds and looking for ways to help the species become more resistant to the fungus that causes rapid ohia death, field agents are in forests on Kauai and throughout the rest of the state looking for signs that the disease has spread.

It was initially discovered on Hawaii Island in 1994. Kauai held off the fungus until May 2018, when it was confirmed in 14 Moloa‘a trees. Then, in December, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced that more trees tested positive for the fungus — trees located on privately owned property in Halelea (Anahola) area and near the Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve. There are two varieties of the fungus, and both have been confirmed on Kauai. It appears to kill trees within days or weeks of infection, and is only found on Hawaii Island and Kauai.

Public education steps to prevent the spread also continue.

There’s a list of those steps on the DLNR website or through the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, and boot-washing stations are set to go in at trailheads across Kauai to provide real tools for cleaning gear.

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Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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