Tropical Gardening: World renowned palm specialists to give lectures this week

  • Photo courtesy of Voltaire Moise A rare dwarf coconut palm growing at the home of Dr. Eric and Cris Lindborg in Kona. Producing nuts at ground level makes them easy to harvest for years since this variety is slow to have a tall trunk.

One of the Big Island’s foremost palm specialists, Jeff Marcus, is giving a lecture on new palms for local gardens. The lecture starts 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday (Jan. 14) at the Mountain View Public library and is a great opportunity to access rare palms.

On Friday (Jan. 17) palm explorer Saul Ernesto Hoyos Gomez of Colombia will present a talk on discovering new palm species in the tropical forests of Colombia. Thus far these areas near the border of Panama have been dangerous and had very restricted access. The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, UCB room 100. Rare palms will be available at a silent auction. Saul is visiting us as he works on his doctorate and will be meeting with several palm growers and nurseries. He will be hosted by IPS chapter president, Mary Lock, in Hilo and Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in West Hawaii.

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Many horticulturists and nursery growers 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 like Floribunda Nursery.

Many of the thousands of species of palms are now being grown in Hawaii. 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 becoming extinct.

According to Tim Brian of the Hawaii Chapter of the International Palm Society, there are more than 400 members who are actively planting and testing palm species in their home gardens. For example, several palm society members live in Kaloko Mauka, Kona, where new palms are being tested for adaptability at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary and gardens of palm society members like Dean Ouer, Mike Galvin and Lee Tracy.

Kaloko Mauka subdivision is a 2,000-acre forest area on the western slope of Hualalai Volcano above Kailua-Kona and is ideal for testing new palm species. It varies from the 1,500 elevation to nearly 6,000 feet above sea level.

Much of Kaloko Mauka is still covered with native forest. Although it is sparsely populated, the gardens of residents are a fascinating mixture of Heliconias, Hydrangeas, and Hoawa, Calatheas, Camellias, and Kopiko. The area abounds with ancient Koa (Acacia Koa), Ohia (Meterosideros polymorpha) and gigantic treeferns, some of which are 30 feet or more in height. The native forest contains many rare and endangered species that many residents are committed to protect through the Hawaii Forest Stewardship Program. This program allows residents to dedicate and manage their properties to enhance this important and unique watershed. It is administered through the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Forestry Division.

In the heart of the subdivision, the 70-acre Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary has been set aside for testing palms, treeferns, 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. Their 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 the 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 may lose precipitation up to 40% according to Dr. James Juvik, professor at UH-Hilo. Much of Kaloko Mauka has been identified as essential wildlife habitat and forest watershed. It is the goal of many residents of Kaloko Mauka 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 tradewinds and excessive rainfall by three major mountain masses. With no tradewinds, rainfall and temperatures are primarily influenced by onshore 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 through October, with the region receiving occasional precipitation from North Westerly storms that occur November through March. Rainfall varies with elevation. At Kailua-Kona, a mere 30 inches average is annually recorded. In Kaloko Mauka at 3,000 feet the rainfall averages 75 inches a year and more. Global warming has affected the cloud forest with higher temperatures and more rain. In August of 2019 almost 3 feet of rain were recorded.

Temperatures also vary dramatically. In Kailua-Kona the typical summer day high may reach 88 degrees while the temperatures at 3,000 feet will be a cool 75 degrees. Winter lows at 3,000 feet 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. Over 2500 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. 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 the Koa, and Hawaiian treeferns.

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Thanks to efforts of the International Palm Society and its local Hawaii Chapter, our island is becoming a source for rare palms including our native species that are only found growing naturally in Hawaii.

Endangered palms grown by Floribunda Palms Nursery and others are distributed to local gardens as well as gardens throughout the tropical world. If you are interested in getting involved with the International Palm Society, come to the meetings this coming week.

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