Hawai’i: Plant Evolution, Origin and the Genus Vaccinium (‘Ohelo)

Original Publication DATE: 12/25/2009

When John Sawyer and his wife Jane first invited Allison and I to join them on the Big Island for a few weeks, he issued a staunch warning when he said “Michael, there are no native conifers anywhere on the chain of Hawaiian Islands.”  After some discussion with Allison I conceded that, even with the absence of conifers, this was an opportunity we could not miss. I was allowed to bring Farjon’s Conifers: A Natural History for some light reading on the beaches—otherwise we packed efficiently for the sub-tropics. John and Jane promised to bring all the plant books we could possibly need.

For the first few days plants were of secondary concern as we toured the beaches and snorkeled in underwater worlds I had never seen before. But eventually, we made our way into the high country, away from the beaches which were planted with, or invaded by, many non-native species.  As we climbed the road to Mauna Kea, eventually into the alpine, we discussed plant distributions and origins on the islands as we peered far over the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii is one of the most isolated places on earth. The nearest land mass is another island chain called the Marquesas, which are 2,000 miles away, the west coast of North America is 2,400 miles, and Japan is 3,800 miles.

This volcanic chain of islands first started its fiery formation 80,000,000 years ago with the creation of Mejii, the western most island. Over time, at a rate of 3.5 inches per year, the plates shifted as lava continued to flow eventually establishing more than 80 islands spread over 3,800 miles. Mejii is now located—eroded and underwater—off the coast of Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The current western most island is Kure Atole which is 27 million years old and 1,600 miles from Honolulu (Walther). Kaua’i, the oldest of the eight main islands, is a mere 5 million years old. It is apparent, that on a grand scale, these islands form “fast” and die “fast.”

Having set the geological history straight, the big question for me became: How did the native plants get here? In the discussion that follows and in the research cited, native plants on Hawaii are described as pre-Polynesian plants—in other words, plants that have been here for tens of thousands of years that reached the islands without the aid of humans.

Hawaiian Cloud Forest
The cloud forests—above 5,000’—offered a rare Pacific refuge for certain plants carried here and already adapted to cooler climatic conditions. On Hawaii at elevation, and in similar habitat through the sub-tropics, Vaccinium spp. thrive.

In 1961, Fosberg found that 18% of Hawaiin native plants were from the Americas, 17% form Australia, 40% from the Indio-Pacific, 3% from the arctic and the rest are of unknown origin. In 1970, Carlquist’s examined seed origin and found that, in those 80 million years, 270 species of plants eventually gave rise to 1,060 native species on the islands—that equates to one successful speciation event every 296,000 years! (Walter). Carlquist went on to state that of these 270 pioneers 1.4% arrived by air, 23.8% by sea and 74.8% by bird. So with the right vessel for distribution and a comfortable landing in just the right habitat, plant life evolved.

In our adventures around the Big Island Allison and I struggled to get comfortable with the plant families here—many of which were new to us. Over 60% percent of the plants here originated in the southern hemisphere, this was new botanical territory. We were definitely entertained by the newness, but it left us feeling like invasive species. We needed something to latch on to, to remind us of home—some sort of habitatual-home so-to-speak. As we climbed into the high country of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, particularly in the pristine native forests of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, we recognized not only a family but a genus that we loved from the mainland.

Vaccinium peleanum
Fruits and berries of Vaccinium peleanum.

Ericaceae is a common family for anyone who has enjoyed a blueberry pie, pondered a Manzanita in California, or slathered huckleberry jam on toast. As a general rule plants from the genus Vaccinium have tasty berries that people take advantage of, especially in the temperate regions of North America, every fall. Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, there are three native species of Vaccinium (Hall) and possibly up to six on the entire chain.  These species hail originally from the north temperate regions and were distributed—by (constipated?) aerial adventurers—between Pacific Island mountain tops from Hawaii to Fiji to Somoa (Kepler).  Merlin goes as far to say that these species closest relatives are located in the forests of the Pacific Northwest—giving more foundation to the comfort level we had when finding these plants. We felt at home in the high elevations forests and sub-alpine landscapes where the Vaccinium thrived.

Vaccinium reticulatum
Vaccinium reticulatum, one of the Vaccinium ssp. to speciate from an ancient Pacific Northwest ancestor within the Hawaiian Islands, grows between 3,000 and 5,000 feet

As on the mainland, Vaccinium were held sacred by native Hawaiians. They believed that ‘ohelo, was venerated by the Volcano God, Pele. Before consuming the berries themselves, they would offer branches bearing fruits to Pele by throwing them into the fiery cauldron of Kilauea (Lamoureux). Allison and I offered our love to the island (because we were not allowed near Kilauea) and the experiences offered to us by its kind people before consuming (sparingly) the plentiful fruit on several of our hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. After a wonderful two week visit, our comfort for landscapes on the island grew as well. We reluctantly departed, back to the frigid winter of the mainland, excited to return another time to learn more about this sub-tropical wonderland.

kilauea
The cauldron in Kilauea Crater to which the native people would offer ‘ohelo to Pele, before enjoying the tasty berries themselves.

Resources:

1.     Carlquist, S. 1970, Hawaii: A Natural History, Natural History Press, New York, New York.

2.     Fosberg, F.R. 1961. Guide to Excursions III, Tenth Pacific Congress. University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

3.     Hall, John B. 2004. A Hiker’s Guide to Trailside Plants in Hawaii. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

4.     Kelper, A.K., 1999, Hawaii’s Floral Splendor, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

5.     Lamoureux, C.H. 1976. Trailside Plants of Hawaii National Park. Hawaii Natural History Association, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

6.     Merlin, M.D. 1980. Hawaiian Forest Plants. Oriental Publishing Company, Honolulu, Hawaii.

7.     Walther, Michael, 2004. A Guide to Hawaii’s Coastal Plants, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii.

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COMMENT:
AUTHOR: Kandler Smith
DATE: 12/25/2009 10:35:01 PM
My botanogeek wife and I enjoyed reading about your travels! Sounds like a great trip. Merry Christmas!
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COMMENT:
AUTHOR: David Fix
DATE: 12/26/2009 7:02:05 AM
Michael, thanks for the impressions. Jude and I also enjoyed veg in Kona, on Mauna Kea, and the south side of the Big Island last year. We did a tour with a guide named Garry who’s with Hawaii Forest & Trails. Didn’t know what to expect but it was really good, and we recommend him. While in the Hakalau NWR (protected and regenerated forest on ne. slope of Mauna Kea) we had an ohia lehua pointed out to us which was perhaps forty inches in diameter. Garry said that the ohia grow only millimeters per year (radially) at most after their youthful flush, and that this tree could have been a thousand years old. I stood there gazing at stout limbs where, quite likely, long-extinct birds such as the Hawaiian ‘O-‘O, Mamo, or Akialoa may have foraged. Spending minutes with this giant was the equivalent of seeing “the big Doug” on a nw. CA hike. As a birder, I listened to the songs of half a dozen native species–trills, whistles, and other semi-tropical utterances–and had to wonder what that forest chorus would have sounded like pre-Captain Cook+ with the extinct birds also chiming in.

// Speaking of big dougs, did you know there is a ~100″ dbh Douglas-fir along Hwy 101 in Del Norte Redwoods S.P. that is easily seen from the highway? Park at the entrance to Mill Creek CG and walk back south about a few hundred feet; the big boy stands west of the road about 75’ off it and is obvious. Aside from diameter it is not an especially heroic tree, but it’s the largest non-redwood I have seen in the park. Rave on. JOIN THE SPOTTED OWL PARTY. U.S. OUT OF NORTH AMERICA! NO FOR PRESIDENT IN 2012 / Fix

  • David- Thanks for your impressions as well. I loved the birds up high as well and longed for more. Hakalau NWR sounds like a can’t miss next time we hit the island.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge ~ Amargosa Valley, NV

Original Publication DATE: 12/30/2008

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located along the eastern border of Death Valley National Park. The area presents an incredible juxtaposition to the desert — lush springs feed streams lined with riparian species; many of which are relicts of a wetter time. In this arid region, when precipitation befalls the mountains of southwestern Nevada, water percolates into aquifers. Over nearly a millennia this primordial water flows underground; forming the headwaters of the aboriginal Amargosa River. At Ash Meadows, these waters are forced up from the underground and a brilliant system of springs can be witnessed; in the heart of some of the most arid land on earth.

Velvet Ash
The velvet ash (Fraxinus velutina) for which the refuge is named

In wetter times of the Pleistocene the Amargosa River flowed here, connecting a system of lakes — all the way to the once-massive Lake Manly. This lake is now dry and known as Death Valley. As this system of rivers and lakes dried with time the fish became restricted to where water remained above ground. Today, Ash Meadows holds the bulk of these springs and hence — through speciation events due to geographical isolation — numerous species of pupfish. It is said that AMNWR has the greatest concentration of endemic life in the United States — at least 25 species have adapted to environments in and around the springs. Again, riparian relicts of and epoch gone by.

Pupfish
The Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis ssp. mionectes) thrive at Jackrabbit Springs.

The pupfish of the region behave as the cichlids of the African Great Lakes — being highly territorial and breeding in a around rocky shelves. Where as the African cichlids are an example of parapatric speciation, the pupfish of Ash Meadows exhibit allopatric speciation — because of their geographic isolation over time.

The region is still threatened. As water levels dropped to feed farms in the 1960’s, the level of water in the underground aquifer dropped and habitat for the Devil’s Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) began to disappear. A Supreme Court ruling in 1976 limited the pumping of water and, for now, has saved this species — as the water remains at a level necessary for breeding near a prefered limestone shelf. The Devil’s Hole pupfish, because it lives in only one place — a litteral rock-hole-spring in the middle of the desert — is possibly the most environmentally restricted species on Earth.  This area needs us to visit, to foster our understanding of the unique biota living on our planet.

Ash Meadows
The swirling emerald-blue water of Crystal Spring.

Carnivorous Plants of the Smith River Region ~ Stoney Creek Trail

Original Publication DATE: 4/18/2009 2:37:00 PM

In the hinterland of northwest California, the Smith River’s crystal blue waters drain abruptly from the Siskiyou Mountains toward the Pacific Ocean—along the way gouging out sparkling canyons through ancient serpentine rock. High levels of precipitation coupled with serpentine geology have fostered unique plant communities in this region. Because the serpentines soils of the Josephine Ophiolite are rich in heavy metals the ecosystem appears infertile. Seemingly sparse red-rock forests endure in stark contrast to the lush redwood forests of the North Coast Range only a few miles away. But upon closer inspection, the red-rock nurtures plant communities that are species rich and teeming with life. Continue reading “Carnivorous Plants of the Smith River Region ~ Stoney Creek Trail”

Eureka Dunes ~ Death Valley National Park

Original Publication DATE: 12/29/2008

One of the most visually spectacular destinations of all desert landscapes in North America has to be the Eureka Dunes of Death Valley National Park. At the end of the Pleistocene an ancient lake that filled the valley floor gradually dried up; as the winds blew newly exposed sand the dunes formed — into one of the highest in North America. The highest dune in the complex rises to 650 feet above the valley floor from which the surroundings are a terrific spectacle to witness. Another fascinating feature of the dunes is their propensity to sing or boom when the sand is pushed from a steep slip face. The sound reverberates from inside the dune as a deep bass note — which is sure to amaze.

Eureka Dunes
Looking south to the Eureka Dunes and Saline Range at sunrise.

The valley not only offers visual beauty but endemic biota as well — currently 3 endemic plants and 5 endemic beetles have been identified on the dunes themselves. The Eureka Valley dune grass (Oenothera californica ssp. eurekensis) was the most spectacular to find on our winter trip. I had never seen a grass that looks like this — quite primordial indeed. The other two endemic plants on the dunes are shining milk vetch (Astragulus lentiginosus var. micans) and Eureka Dune evening-primrose (Oenothera californica spp. eurekensis). Though we saw the astragulus, both are best viewed in early spring when in bloom.

Eureka Dune Grass
The endemic Eureka Valley dune grass.

The legendary plant explorers of the Eureka Valley are Mary and Paul Dedecker. As self taught botanists they often explored the Mojave looking for plants. One a fateful day in the summer of 1975 the two ventured into the Eureka Valley and eventually into a canyon on the south side of the valley. It was a hot July day when Mary found a shrub in bloom — bright yellow when all other plants were browning in the summer heat. It turned out the this was a new species and a new genus that favors a rare limestone outcrop in the canyon. She aptly named the plant July gold (Dedeckera eurekensis). The canyon itself was later named Dedeckera Canyon and can be traveled (with 4-wheel drive and experience) all the way to Saline Valley.

4wd in Dedeckera Canyon
Dropping down the dry falls of Dedeckera Canyon from Saline Valley

COMMENT:
AUTHOR: Thomas Lopez
DATE: 10/8/2009 12:34:22 AM
Very nice photos, hope to visit the area sometime for an Ansel Adams experience, that is photographing the dunes and surrounding area with a large format camera and b/w film.
—–
COMMENT:
AUTHOR: Lenavena
EMAIL: lenevana@gmail.com
URL: https://www.wildlifeworld360.com
DATE: 11/1/2010 11:24:58 AM
Awesome photos. Will visit it sometime
—–
COMMENT:
AUTHOR: Dave Imper
DATE: 11/15/2010 5:56:35 PM
Fantastic pics Mike. I took the road between Eureka and Saline Valleys as well, back in about 1997…brutal. Glad I had a rented car. Did you see the Marble Bath, noted on the USGS quad? Not what you expect. We need to share our desert trip photos.

Dave- I have done that road twice and missed the Marble Bath each time–guess it was a bit stressful from Saline to the saddle and I was distracted when we passed that spot.  -Michael

 

Saline Valley Plant Explorations

Original Publication Date: 12/23/2008 

Saline Valley might just be the most isolated spot in the state of California. In many aspects it is a smaller version of Death Valley, just to the east. It has a wide basin with a smaller sand dune complex, is surrounded by mountain ranges — including the Inyo, Nelson, Last Chance, and Saline — and has terrific canyons to explore full of lush springs and hanging gardens. One major difference to its neighboring valley is that it exposes several hot springs to the surface that have been known and used for centuries. Most of Saline Valley is in Death Valley National Park — the base of the massive Inyo Mountains to the west is the boundary between park land and National Forest.

Creosote and desert holly
Creosote and desert holly typify the flora that is likely to be found on the valley floor. The Inyo Mountains are in the background.

Creosote (Larrea tridentata) is the most dominant shrub of the valley floor — and possibly the most successful shrub in the deserts of North America. The species covers 149 million square miles, ranges in elevation from -235 to 5,000 feet, can live at a density of over 350 plants per acre, and some argue that this species may live as long as 11,000 years (Pavlik 2008). One adaptation to survive in these harsh desert conditions is its small leaves, which grow at angles that minimize direct contact with the sun’s rays. Desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) is a common associate of the creosote, and also a common shrub in Saline Valley. This species survives in harsh desert conditions by having angled, light colored leaves.

Creosote flower
Creosote was in flower on our December visit.

Saline Valley has a long history. The Timbisha Shoshone inhabited the area until the late 1800’s when the mineral rich region enticed prospectors into an isolated existence — mining silver, gold, borax and, even salt. Now, the main attractions are hot springs and isolation. There are a series of 3 springs spread out over several miles in the southeast corner of the valley. They are very popular with desert rats — colorful stories are the norm while soaking in the tub. The most infamous visitor to the springs was Charles Manson, who spent time in the valley in the 60’s before being caught further south in the park.

Desert Holly
Desert holly in bloom.
Saline Valley Springs and the Inyo Mountains
Sunrise on the Inyos towers over the lower springs — decorated by introduced California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera)

More Pictures of the Saline Valley

Resources:
Pavlik, Bruce 2008. The California Desert. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA

Lanphere Dunes ~ Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge

ORIGINAL PUBLICATION DATE: 12/15/2008

When I visit the Lanphere Dunes I always feel like I have taken a trip to another part of the world. Hidden and relatively unknown, the redwood forest — as a local destination — can overshadow this unique ecosystem. The dune complex is surrounded by temperate coniferous rainforest, the Pacific Ocean, and Humboldt Bay — ecologically trapping and therefore fostering, for millenia, isolation of space and time. Species that survive here define their own vegetation type; from the common to the unexpected, to the seemingly out of place there is always something new to appreciate on a trip to the dunes. Although a visit requires a guide or written letter of permission, hikes are offered monthly — check the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge  webpage for information regarding access.

Dune Forest
In between dune complexes, forests thrive where they are sheltered — out of the wind.

Today, we were lucky to have a guide. Allison and I joined Dr. John Sawyer and his wife Jane on a walk through the dunes. John was a key member of a group of conservationist with a vision — that originally secured preservation for this area nearly 40 years ago. Since the establishment of the preserve, it has changed hands from the original steward, the Nature Conservancy, to the Fish and Wildlife Service who manages it today — with a mostly hands off approach, except toward the removal of non-native species, the place has maintained a primordial feel.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Kinnikinnick (Arcotstaphylos uva-ursi) and reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) carpet the forest floor.
Lanphere Dunes
As the sand shifts south the vegetation soon follows. Here, John Sawyer and I observe young beach pines sprouting where the sand has recently (over the past 25 years) blown away — creating a more stable soil medium.

Lanphere dunes foster an amazing range of biota. From rare plants to common plants to plants that are far from their more common range — expect the unexpected when venturing into the dunes. Besides some terrific conifer specimens, including a subspecies of lodgepole pine called beach pine (Pinus contorta spp. contorta), the most intriguing inhabitants in the dunes are reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) and bear berry manzanita (Arcotstaphylos uva-ursi). The lichen is a common component of northern boreal forest floors where it grows circumpolar in the northern hemisphere — the Lanphere Dune population is a relict from a much colder time. Bear berry, or kinnikinnick, is a beautiful, prostrate manzanita that is found elsewhere in California in a few drainages on the east side of the High Sierra Nevada — dunes and high mountains, quite a contrast in habitats. One species that caught Allison’s eye was a population of twin flower (Linnea borealis); a plant we have grown to love on our summer forays into the Klamath Mountain high country. Dr. Sawyer informed us that the population Allison spotted was the only one discovered one in the dune complex — another relict of an epoch gone by.

John O. Sawyer and Allison Poklemba
Allison and John passionately discuss the seed dispersal of the Humboldt Bay wallflower (Erysimum menziesii)

The dynamic ecosystems of Lanphere Dunes makes for an exceptional hike. This is a place that embraces change, while at the same time offers refuge to species that were once common in the region during climatically different times. It is surely one of the best examples of a coastal dune ecosystem on the Pacific Coast.

Walking through the encroaching dunes.
With ocean winds come shifting sand. When sand encroaches upon the forest trees die leaving “skeleton forests” — reminding the temporal visitor that the dune ecosystem is a dynamic one.

COMMENT:
AUTHOR: J Loomis
DATE: 5/2/2009 3:38:42 AM
Just returned from CA last Sunday. I was unable to tour the Lamphere Dunes not knowing it required a permit. Went to the nearby “Friends of the Dunes” Stamp D. area and was fortunate to find a single Wallflower….or what I thought was one. Anyone have any pictures?

Papoose Lake – Trinity Alps

Originally Published on 12/2/2008 

The day after Thanksgiving was dedicated to working off some calories. I woke up at 5AM and took off to Hobo Gulch Trailhead on the edge of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. After 14 miles of hiking, including a scramble at the end, Papoose Lake was achieved around 2PM. I spent the afternoon exploring the frozen lake and surrounding areas; settling down for a cold night I started a fire and cooked some gourmet sausages. Saturday morning I awoke — after a surprisingly warm night — to a thawing lake, 2 cups of coffee, and a glorious sunrise. I packed a day bag and climbed the southwest ridgeline. The geological character of the lake is fascinating in that the southwest edge is a fault where granite — common in the high Trinity Alp — meets a serpentine rock type (more geology) also typical across northwest California; scattered in many of its mountain ranges. This trip was originally planned because my favorite conifer, the foxtail pine, favors serpentine outcrops at high elevations — I had wanted to get into this region of the Alps and search out some foxtails. Here I had elevation and serpentine — so I predicted that there would be a new grove of this rare tree for me to discover just on the south-face above the lake. Upon achieving the ridge, my hunch was correct. While, foxtail pines do grow on granite in the high Trinity Alps they are much more common, and groves more extensive, on serpentine.

Foxtail Pines and the Trinity Alps

I spent a glorious day exploring an exceptional forest of trees — growing with foxtail pines were whitebark pines, Shasta red firs, mountain hemlocks, and a few Brewer spruce. In the cirque that holds Papoose Lake there are 11 species of conifers. Along the entire trail one can identify 15 species. My final day, Sunday, I returned to the truck refreshed and exuberant.

Serpentine meets Gabbro
Serpentine meets Gabbro

COMMENT: AUTHOR: Gary Robertson EMAIL: garytrinity2@netzero.com URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garytrinity/ DATE: 1/31/2010 8:07:01 PM Informative commentary — great shots of your Papoose Lake trip. I try to get to Papoose every few years — one of my favorite Trinity Alps lakes. I’ve climbed the southwest ridge myself — whenever I cross-country from Papoose to the Russell Cabin Trail — that’s how I go. It’s a short but steep and very brush off-trail route. (The Russell Cabin Trail connects with the main North Fork trail at Backbone Creek just a short distance from the Hobo Gulch Trailhead.) —–

COMMENT: AUTHOR: Stephen Sikes EMAIL: sikes.stephen@gmail.com URL: DATE: 5/16/2014 1:57:25 PM Hi Michael – I’m curious if you recall the altitude at which the Foxtails began to emerge in the Serpentine soils. Do you recall if you found them below 7000′ at Papoose? —–

COMMENT: AUTHOR: Michael E Kauffmann EMAIL: michael_kauffmann@yahoo.com URL: DATE: 5/17/2014 2:24:27 PM Stephen- from Papoose Lake it is a significant climb to get to the foxtails. They are on the south-facing ridge, south of the lake. They may be north of the lake as well, but I did not climb into that area. South of the lake, as you see in the blog, is serpentine. The foxtails love this soil type and it is quite a spectacular stand here. They extend down slope from the ridgeline to an elevation I could not verify since I stayed high on this trip. Generally, foxtails in the Klamath Mountains live above 7,200′ but can be as low as 6,600′ depending on habitat. If you search them out – let me know what you find.

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