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Illinois expert on orchids to bring rarity to islands

By Rob Shikina

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:40 p.m. HST, Feb 28, 2011


The last specimen of a rare Hawaiian orchid on Kauai will be joined next week by a half-dozen of its descendants in its home.

An Illinois botany professor who successfully reproduced the Platanthera holochila is expected to bring about 90 plants to Hawaii next week.

The orchid is extinct on Oahu and nonexistent on the Big Island, but Maui has about 20 plants living in the wild and about 20 live on Molokai. The only known specimen on Kauai lives in the Alakai Swamp within a fence that protects it from goats and pigs.

One of three orchid species endemic to Hawaii, the plant is the rarest of all three and appears somewhat unglamorous for an orchid, said Wendy Kishida, Kauai coordinator of the Plant Extinction Prevention Program.

It can grow to be several feet tall with hundreds of greenish-yellow flowers that bloom from spikes around the stem, according to some descriptions.

Chipper Wichman, director and chief executive officer of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, said botanists have seen the plant's population decline over 20 years from about four plants to one. He said no one has been able to propagate the plant.

"This is really a success story," he said. "This is a huge breakthrough for us."

But he remained cautious about the work ahead to get the plant reproducing on its own.

"This does not ensure the survival of this species," he said. "What this does is it gives us a huge step forward."

He said Illinois College associate professor Larry Zettler will bring about 90 plants to Hawaii next week.

The seedlings will be planted on Kauai and Molokai, depending on where the seeds came from, to preserve the purity of the genetic lines, Kishida said.

Only about six from the Kauai plant will be planted on Kauai, with the rest to be kept in reserve at the National Garden, she said.

The plants at the garden will be used for seeds and further attempts at reintroducing the plants into the wild, Wichman said. He said they will be kept in a room that matches the cooler climes the plant prefers.

Kishida said botanists will walk the plants to a secret location at Alakai Swamp. The orchids will be planted together to allow for cross-pollination.

Wichman said the successful reproduction of the orchid was a collaboration by Zettler and field botanist Steve Perlman, who has been monitoring the plant for about 30 years.






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