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Hear Ken Wood talk about collecting seed in the wild
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Rock Star Botanists

Native Vs. Exotic Plants

Rock Star Botanists

Hear Ken Wood talk about collecting seed in the wild
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

As promised, you're about to meet Ken Wood. He's one of the so-called "rock star botanists" on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, associated with the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Why rock star? Most likely because his exploits have become the stuff of legend, his relentless, daring feet (insert wink) in the wild decade after decade, in search of endangered Hawaiian and Pacific Islands plants.

Ken Wood collecting on Kaua'i

If you've got a hankering to find research biologist Ken Wood, you could do worse than scout for him around the Kalalau Valley on the island of Kaua'i, one of his favorite botanic haunts. photo credit: courtesy National Tropical Botanic Garden hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: courtesy National Tropical Botanic Garden

Yet for all the risks he takes on his seemingly death-defying plant expeditions, Ken Wood is no pumped-up Indiana Jones. Consider his modest comments from the talk we had while hiking a ridge overlooking his beloved Kalalau Valley.

All through time, there've been very interesting field biologists, many out here in the Hawaiian Islands, and these naturalists, botanists and biologists were incredibly adventurous; the rigors and difficulties they encountered were intense and amazing. So I think we've a similar mindset.

As for describing that mindset, how's this for a swashbuckling answer:

It's often said, "Who am I, Where do I come from, Where am I going to." Well, the "who am I" part is not just my physical form but what I'm a part of. So that curiousity we have, that interest in understanding our relationship with earth and/or the universe, I think that's in us all. And once we start to tap into it and learn a little bit and open the first few pages of this incredible story, we're locked in there. And if you can make a living at it, then you're in for a really cool ride.

Ken Wood's daring feet

Don't worry, he isn't hooved. These are Wood's spiked tabis. photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

It occurs to me that reading Ken Wood is no substitute for hearing him. So much is in his delivery. As he talks about hand-pollinating plants to get them to set seed — we're talking very rare plants now, often the last of their species, clinging to rock cliffs 3,000 feet high — his slow, seductive way of explaining things makes the act itself sound like soft porn. So if you haven't already, give a listen to the audio clip up top.

Ready to rock? Cool. How 'bout starting with an overview of the endangered plant crisis in Hawaii. Two good articles that feature Wood are Hanging by a Thread from Discover Magazine, and Paradise Lost? from Plant Talk.

And for you plant geeks, here's the blow-by-blow list of Hawaii's threatened and endangered plants, as well as an awesome overview of Hawaii's native flora.

A flora, I might add, all the richer because of guys like Ken Wood (I can already hear him protesting that he's just one piece of the conservation puzzle. Agreed). Not only has he kept countless plants from extinction, he is the decidedly bashful papa of a previously undescribed species. Get a look at this exquisite yellow Hibiscadelphus woodii.

A hibiscus relative found by Ken Wood

Pretty, isn't she? You can thank Ken Wood for getting her on the list of Hawaiian native flora. photo credit: Ken Wood hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: Ken Wood

Stay tuned for more adventures from Kaua'i...



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Please post information about bringing favorite plants indoors for the cooler season. Also, I need info on helping my palm tree grow indoors. Thanks for your help I love reading the plant page & conservation articles; I feel like I am not the only person aware of the value of such things!

Sent by Shannon Denison | 1:15 PM | 10-3-2007

One of the main reasons hundreds of Hawaii's plants are endangered is the State's game program. All Hawaii's game animals were brought here from mainland sources. After statehood in 1959, the Territorial government's large-animal control program was ended in favor of bag limits and hunting seasons, and there is practically no management to limit the range or number of animals on the almost 1 million acres of natural area managed by the State government. Since that time, the number of introduced pigs, goats, sheep and deer has skyrocketed, while less than 1% (about 0.65%) of residents buy hunting licenses. Until the game program is restructured to get rid of the game overpopulation and limit the animals to appropriate hunting areas, Hawaii's native plants and animals will continue to be grazed and trampled into extinction.

Sent by Mary Ikagawa | 8:15 PM | 10-6-2007

This was great. Let's hear more about native plants and their importance in our gardens.

Sent by Linda Cody | 11:17 AM | 11-7-2007

Having more reports on the wonders of native plants would be wonderful. The majority of our rare ecosystems, many species of fish, our farmlands, our forests, our water systems, in short, all our habitats, are degraded daily as invasive species overtake hundreds of acres. Programs focusing on the beauty and necessity of maintaining vibrant native plants in our environment would be of great interest and service to your listeners. Invasive species are just now being understand as a crisis. This past week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Invasive Plant Management announced a new e-learning website aimed at engaging volunteers and the public in invasive plant issues and management.

Sent by Grace Lilly | 11:29 AM | 11-7-2007

Let's hear more about native plants!

Sent by Lusetta Nelson | 4:40 PM | 11-7-2007

Native plants? I hear YOU. Working on a few pieces on Hawaiian natives to air end Nov/early Dec, and we'll dedicate that week to natives on the blog. Always got an eye out for natives, lately it's been trees...

Sent by ketzel levine | 11:11 AM | 11-8-2007

Ken is not only so active in finding these rare gems, but he is doubling as a mentor to the next generation of rock-star botanists. that legacy can only be exponential in helping to canvass more area and raising more consciousness about the need for protecting biodiversity, not onlly in Hawaii, but world-wide.

Sent by Pat Bily | 5:41 PM | 11-8-2007

I just got through spending a couple weeks in the field with Ken, and I learned a lot in that time. His patience as a mentor is as much of an asset as his knowledge. Thanks Ken and hope to get back out there with you guys soon.

Sent by Eric Luke | 10:50 PM | 11-24-2007