Tropical Gardening: Palm society slated to tour Kaloko Mauka forest gardens

  • Photo courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE Chambeyronia macrocarpa, or the red feather palm, is one of many New Caledonia palms thriving at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary at 3,000 feet elevation.

Many Hawaii horticulturists, nursery growers and home gardeners involved with the International Palm Society have discovered rare and endangered species worldwide and propagated them here.

Some are yet to be identified at sites such as Floribunda Nursery, where Jeff Marcus is growing extremely rare species recently brought to the island. Probably there are more here than any other part of the United States. All the climatic niches on the islands make us ideal for being a Noah’s arc to protect species from extinction.

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According to Mary Lock, president of the Hawaii Chapter of the International Palm Society, there are more than 250 members who actively plant and test palm species in their home gardens. Several members live in Kaloko Mauka, Kona, where new palms are being tested for adaptability at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, and gardens of members such as Dean Ouer, Mike Galvin and Lee Tracy.

The Palm Society invites members and potential new members to a meeting and tour at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, to experience this unique and varied ecosystem. Since space is limited, it is important to make reservations and get directions by emailing hawaiiislandpalmsociety@gmail.com.

Kaloko Mauka subdivision is a 2,000 acre forest area on the western slope of Hualalai above Kailua-Kona and is ideal for testing new palm species. It varies from 1,500 to nearly 6,000 feet in elevation. Lower Kaloko Mauka is tropical, where coconut palms are grown. The top of Kaloko Mauka is so cold that winter frosts are not uncommon.

Much of Kaloko Mauka is still covered with native forest. Although it is sparsely populated, the gardens of residents are a fascinating mixture of native and unusual introduced species such as tropical Vireya rhododendrons, hydrangeas and even roses. The area abounds with ancient koa (Acacia koa), ohia (Meterosideros polymorpha) and gigantic tree ferns, some of which are 20 feet or more in height. The native forest contains many rare and endangered species that residents are committed to protect.

In the heart of the subdivision, Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary was set aside for testing palms, tree ferns, bamboos, bromeliads, orchids, tropical rhododendrons and other plant materials. Observations are being made as to their adaptability for reforestation, agricultural and landscape use.

Efforts at the sanctuary are to protect and preserve native plants and birds. Its motto is “Living forest friendly”

Kaloko Mauka is unusual because although it is a cloud forest, it is influenced by the balmy Kona climate. It is the home of the Hawaiian hawk, apapane, iiwi, elepaio, amakihi and many other endemic and exotic birds.

Cloud forests differ from tropical rain forests in that a substantial amount of precipitation is derived from mists that condense on the trees and drip to the forest floor. When trees are removed, rainfall decreases substantially and the forest can lose precipitation up to 40 percent, according to James Juvik, professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Much of Kaloko Mauka was identified as essential wildlife habitat and forest watershed.

It is the goal of many residents to set an example that they can live in harmony with the forest and still have homes and some “forest friendly” agriculture activities. This is essential if West Hawaii is to have the rainfall and water needed to supply communities at lower elevations.

Kona is protected from the trade winds and excessive rainfall by three major mountain masses. With no trade winds, rainfall and temperatures are influenced by on shore breezes during the day. This creates a summer wet and winter dry effect unlike the rest of Hawaii. It is similar to the Caribbean, and is ideally suited for coffee, macadamia, cloud forest plants and tropical forest production.

Rainfall occurs each afternoon from April-October, with the region receiving occasional precipitation from northwesterly storms that occur November-March. Rainfall varies with elevation. At Kailua-Kona, a mere 30 inches average is annually recorded. At 3,000 feet, the rainfall averages 75 inches or more a year.

Temperatures also vary dramatically. In Kailua-Kona, the typical summer daytime high can reach 88 degrees, while the temperatures at 3,000 feet will be around a cool 75 degrees. Winter lows at night average in the mid 50s. These very mild climactic conditions are ideal for tropical mountain and subtropical palms.

Now, three decade’s worth of plantings are beginning to mature. More than 2,500 palms have been planted with varying success at the sanctuary.

The Kaloko Mauka area is particularly interesting in that even though it is ideally suited to mountain cloud forest palm species, there presently are no native palms in the area except those planted by palm enthusiasts. The endemic Pritchardia maideniana is found as isolated specimens in Kona, up to about 1,500 feet. The rare Pritchardia schattaueri is found at 2,000 feet to the south at Honomolino, and Pritchardia beccariana is growing up to 4,000 feet on the east slope of Mauna Loa.

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It is postulated that grazing animals, pigs and rats in the forests destroyed Pritchardia species in the Kaloko area. We do know that cattle did and are still having a devastating impact on other susceptible forest species such as koa and Hawaiian tree ferns.

Thanks to efforts of the International Palm Society and its Hawaii Chapter, our island is becoming a source for rare palms, including species that are only found growing naturally in Hawaii. Endangered palms grown by Floribunda Palms Nursery and others also are distributed to local gardens and gardens throughout the tropical world.