Monday, April 04, 2011


Meet the Hawaiian Silversword. It's actually a group of plants known as the Argyroxiphium genus. I doubt it's possible to know how many species there are, for reasons I'll explain. (Photo from Wiki Commons, very similar to one I took about ten years ago and can't find now.)

Silverswords are native to Hawaii and only grow there, mostly on the islands of Maui and Hawaii (the newest ones). They grow in fresh volcanic soil, and are in fact one of the first plants to move in after a volcanic eruption, which is why I think they should be the state flower. (The state flower is actually the hibiscus.) Silverswords are flowering plants, in the Aster family. It's assumed that some wind-borne seeds blew through to Hawaii from the Americas sometime in the last seven thousand years, and proceeded to adapt like crazy into the plants we know now. Because they flower, they hybridize like mad. Every time they think one is extinct, a hybrid turns up somewhere.

The freaky growing conditions (acidic, volcanic soil, high altitude, cool-to-cold temperatures), these little guys are always classified as endangered. They DO have limited ecosystems, and they aren't very many in number. But honestly? They grow in such incredibly isolated places that no one's really sure how well they're doing. Within those growing conditions, they seem all right.

Back when we lived in Hawaii, the in-laws came to visit. We all went on a tour of the islands, and one of the things we did was drive to the top of Haleakala, the not-quite-dormant volcano on Maui. I was a plant freak, so I was hoping I might be able to spot a silversword. I didn't have much hope, though, because they're endangered. So, we get to the summit, get out of the car - and I nearly tripped over a silversword growing right next to the parking lot. (In fact, if you look at the top picture, you can see a sliver of curb and parking lot in the upper right.) It was about the size of a soccer ball, and seemed to be thriving away.

They were all over the place, within their own little ecosystem.

You'll find that a lot with Hawaiian plants - many have VERY limited habitats, but within the habitat, they're doing as well as they ever did. Some Hawaiian plants have habitats measured in acres. Calling them endangered seems misleading, though I'm not sure what else we're supposed to call them. Really freaky? Limited? Hawaiian?

Oh, and one last bit. If you're going to remember one thing, remember this: Hawaiian plants often have very fragile root systems. So don't go tromping up to one, if you ever see one. And if you do, don't complain when a gardener jumps you. (One of my teachers regularly threatened the lives of the school's groundskeepers for driving mowers near her indigenous trees.)

Maybe tomorrow, I'll have something fibery to say. For now, I'm hitting "publish" before lightning strikes again.


=Tamar said...

"Micro-ecology" maybe?
I like how they look, anyway.

Barbara said...

So pretty. I like that they can take care of themselves and have picked out a place to live that's crazy enough that not many other plants want to live there. Kind of like our house.

Jen said...

While not at all fibery, after reading your post I feel smarter about something really neat.


Alwen said...


I think they count as endangered for multiple reasons (restricted range, relatively low population, a certain level of fragility, and even the outcrossing/hybridization weighs in against them).

Roxie said...

Are these the things called a century plant?

Haiwii is such a fascinating place with eco systems changing vertically and horizontally so radically within a few miles.

Deb said...

I love it when you expand my horizons, never ceases to amaze me what you'll pull out of that brain of yours, interesting post!

Amy Lane said...

That's cool-- I love the freaky little ecosystem idea:-0