On a drizzly morning in paradise, ken wood and i are padding along the rim of the KalalauValley, some 4,000 feet above the ocean on Kauai’s Na Pali coast. The scenery is glorious, but something is missing. This is Hawaii, yet there’s not a palm tree in sight and palm trees are what Wood is all about. A field botanist originally from New York with a laid-back manner and filaments of gray in his close-cropped beard, Wood, 47, works for the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), on Kauai. He spends a lot of time looking for rare palms. When he finds one, he climbs it (if it’s big), snips off a frond, plucks a few seeds and shinnies back down. Today he’s looking for a fan palm of the genus Pritchardia, a group that encompasses Hawaii’s only native palms.
There are 27 species of Pritchardia, 23 of which are found in Hawaii. Eight are officially classified as endangered, but Wood is convinced others as well face the threat of extinction. Not long ago, he took a census on East Maui of one of them, P. arecina. “There are only 500 left,” he tells me, “and there is no regeneration. When there’s no regeneration, you don’t need statistics to show that the species will die off.”
The notion that Hawaii is losing its palms may sound faintly ridiculous to anyone who’s visited the island chain. Coconut palms grow so abundantly you’d think resorts would have to supply tourists with hard hats along with the customary leis. But coconuts, like taro, breadfruit and a host of other Hawaiian denizens, didn’t originate here. They arrived with the Polynesian voyagers who settled on the islands some 1,600 years ago. For millennia before that, the fan palms Wood now combs the backcountry in search of dominated the landscape.
Hawaii is by no means the only place where palms are in a pickle. Of the world’s nearly 3,000 species, about 220 are “highly threatened with extinction,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, and many others are headed in the same direction. Some, like the one named Hyophorbe amaricaulis, have already reached their end. This species is down to a single tree, tall and sparsely crowned, living out its days in a botanical garden in Curepipe on the island of Mauritius. It fruits regularly but the seeds it produces are not viable, and clones made from this plant have not been able to survive outside a laboratory environment. Someday the last living H. amaricaulis on earth will go the way of another, better known native of Mauritius: the dodo.
As is the case with endangered plants and animals in general, a disproportionate number of endangered palm species are found on islands. Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest island (about the size of Texas), is an object lesson in the problems that face palms across the tropics. In the past century, the human population there has quadrupled to 12 million and most of the previously undisturbed land has been converted to agriculture. Consequently, nearly half of Madagascar’s 176 palm species are endangered or presumed extinct, with unknown ramifications for the island’s birds and other wildlife. (For more on Madagascar, see Around the Mall, p. 39.)