Native Vs. Exotic Plants

Rock Star Botany 202

Mahalo! It's another splendid day here on virtual Kaua'i ... of course I haven't been to the actual island in a while, but tuning in to the island's public radio station helps ...

First, allow me a moment of preemptive denial: I am not in the pocket of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (see? no hyperlink). The only reason my Morning Edition report and Talking Plants Kaua'i stories are filled with NTBG people is that the Hawaii-based botanists on my "Must Meet List" were already working for the Garden.

Can I help it if its staff rocks?

In fact, is was on the NTBG staff that I met my first so-called rock star botanist, Ken Wood, a self-effacing plantsman who, despite himself, does justice to the romantic term ... a term taught to me by future botanical rocker Clay Trauernicht, a field botanist tragically too cute for his own good.

(Yes, Clay, you are).

But enough flirting with jail bait, today's rock star botanist is Steve Perlman, who you might have heard hunting for the rare fringed orchid.

Steve Perlman with hibiscus he found in wild

Posing just a wee bit self-consciously with one of his great plant finds, Steve Perlman shows off a blossom from Hibiscus kokio ssp. kokio, a plant he collected on the island of O'ahu. There was only kokio plant known from that island when he made the cutting and it wasn't a prolific bloomer. Baby, look at me now: hard to find in the wild but merrily flowering in cultivation. photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

Steve Perlman's daring hi-jinks to save Hawaii's native plants is now the stuff of legend among those in the know, as well as the subject of articles, books and an Imax film. He has risked his life so many times gaining access to endangered plants, he couldn't decide which story to tell me when I asked him to describe the scariest botanizing trip of them all.

But describe it he did.

"It's not thrill-seeking," says Perlman. "I'm there because the plants are there and I'm trying to get to them". His track record is astonishing; let's just say that if you were a betting plant lost in the wilderness, you'd be smart to put your money and your life on him. Not only will he get your seeds into cultivation, often — with the help of the world's best propagators — he'll see to it that your offspring make it into the nursery trade.

Brighamia, another Perlman find

Brighamia insignis, shown here in her Mother Of All Plants pose, is a classic Dr. Seuss plant that comes in all sorts of rubbery shapes and breaks out into starry, fragrant flowers. Steve Perlman — along with Ken Wood — spent many years collecting the species, which has a penchant for growing on sea cliffs. "We've seen them all but die out in the wild," says Perlman. "But we got them into cultivation, and they're now being sold all over the world. That feels good." photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

Perhaps the best-known story about Perlman (Ken Wood is often featured in this tale) is about the lengths he went to in order to collect Brighamia seed in the wild. I recommend you hear Perlman tell it himself, but here's the gist:

Because these plants prefer life on the edge — that is, on windswept cliffs facing out to sea — Perlman had to rappel down to the area where they often grew only to discover they hadn't set any seed. So he'd dangle around, hanging off the cliff, until he'd located a male plant and could collect its pollen. Then he'd dangle around some more until he'd located a female plant, and dabble on the goods.

Months later, he'd return to see if the pollinated female plant had set seed. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If not, he'd simply return again and again, as often as it took — rappelling off sea cliffs hundreds of feet above the ocean — to collect a few life-giving seeds.

Perlman sniffing the flowers

A rare angle of repose for field botanist Steve Perlman, with his nose in Brighamia insignis, one of his greatest success stories. photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

Well, I don't know what you've been doing with your life, but something tells me I might yet consider doing something more significant with mine.



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What a wonderful way to start off my year! I just got back from a Hawaiian vacation, the best part of which was a tour of the NTBG/Allerton Park. I am back in NYC and freezing so it was great to wake up to a report on where I just was! I'm now going through my notes I took on the tour to properly identify the photos of rare native plants.

Sent by corrina | 10:07 AM | 1-2-2008

Listening to your story this morning brought back fond memories of our trips to Kaua'i. After all, Hawai'i is only 5.5 hours from AK. However, the "pumping out the toilet bowl" should ring some alarm bells. That "sulfur smell" is decaying organic material. In a real world situation, this is entering a confined space. Being overcome by Hydrogen Sulfide is no laughing matter. Generally these instances become body recoveries versus rescues. I am sure you would appreciate taking appropriate (air monitoring) precautions in the future. Thanks

Sent by Matthew T. Pauli | 11:51 AM | 1-2-2008

I'm all for saving native species and propagating them for reintroduction into their native environment. I am wondering about sending seeds and cutting around the world to be propagated and "sold all over the world." Seems like there is the potential for one of these to become an invasive species in some of these new habitats.

Sent by scott | 12:19 PM | 1-2-2008

Hooray! I just loved listening to this story this morning, and even more exciting is this fabulous web page.
I received my degree in horticulture a couple years ago but after a few short stints at local nurseries and a Dream year with the Oregon Garden I am a sad office monkey (that's what you get when you work for small start-up nurseries= layed-off). I dream of getting back into the horticulture world and just devour any plant story I can. And I love the pictures!!!

Sent by Tiffany | 6:46 PM | 1-2-2008

wow im impressed by the tenactiy of this man to endanger his life.. the life of a human to save the life of an endangered plant. this man truly does love the nature and cares for the plants. KUdos

Sent by wesley | 11:17 PM | 2-7-2008

This is Really interesting he spends all of his time devoted to plants and instead of just looking where it would be easy to find plants such as on level land, he goes the extra mile and even risks his life to hang over a cliff "repeatedly" to just get seeds which might not even have survived thats insane but the world needs people who are that dedicated to do those jobs. More power to you !!

Sent by Brian R | 1:51 PM | 2-8-2008

The fact that someone would go to far lentghs in order to save tropical plants that so many people ignore and exploit is very commendable. By taking the effort to save these importants plants, Steve Perlman shows people that these plants matter too and should be cultivated more as well as protected more.

Sent by Ruth L. | 4:24 PM | 2-12-2008

had the good fortune to have been an apprentice gardener in 1979 with Steve out there at What then was known as Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden now called the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Rock star doesn't quite describe him, Maybe Indiana Jones, or Kauai Perlman is more appropo.

Sent by anonymous (or Euonymous) | 9:16 PM | 4-7-2008