Plant Thought to Be Extinct Rediscovered in Hawaii Crater

by Samantha Whidden
(Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

A rare plant that was thought to be extinct for years was reportedly rediscovered recently in a Hawaii crater. 

In a joint statement, Kamehameha Schools, the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and Three Mountain Alliance (TMA) revealed a small population of the Delissea argutidentata plant was discovered in a nearby crater. The three organizations notably planted 30 Keiki plants propagated by the Volcano Rare Plant Facility. This was done with the small population of this newly found plant that was detected in early March 2021 by a TMA staff member.

KS Senior Natural Resources Manager Amber Nāmaka Whitehead spoke about the plant’s progress in Hawaii. “Kamehameha Schools has been successful at stewarding native ecosystems as a whole but what’s really exciting is that this is the first step toward a much bigger focus on rare species recovery. We need both – healthy native ecosystems and every one of our rare species. They are critically important to our Hawaiian cultural identity and our health and well-being as a people.”

The TMA staff member that discovered the plant was collecting seeds from other plants. The seeds were going to be used in nearby restoration areas. TMA Coordinator Colleen Cole also spoke about the plant’s rediscovery.

“Rediscovery of Delissea is such an important message of hope. In Hawaii, there is often much focus on loss,” Cole further explained. “Loss of species, forest, sacred places – and maybe that is human nature but the Delissea reminds us to always nurture and make room for hope and discovery. This was such an inspirational event that means now we can reintroduce this plant in large numbers to its former range, reminding us to remain hopeful and vigilant.”

Rediscovered Plant in Hawaii Was Last Seen in the Early 1970s

Delissea argutidentata was last seen in this area in the early 1970s. It was seen within three small enclosures fenced by a former tenant. A plant pressing reportedly collected from the area in 1971 notes there were only three plants remaining. However, the tops of all the plants were damaged. This was presumably done by cattle. There was no regeneration likely due to the dense grass. 

Joshua VanDeMark, the DLNR coordinator of the Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP), said, “The fact that it was discovered here, brings it back to this place. The reintroduction of a rare species like this is so critical because the habitat is what will allow it to persist into the future.”

Delissea argutidentata notably has a long, unbranched, palm-like trunk topped by a dense round cluster of leaves. It can grow up to 35 feet tall. This is considered much taller than any other species in the lobelia family. Of the 16 recognized species of Delissea, 14 are extinct and the remaining two are noted to be endangered.