Steve Perlman fights to preserve endangered plant species in Hawai’i.
Images by Bryce Johnson
Steve Perlman punches the spikes of his hiking boots into the face of a vertical cliff. Spread beneath him is Kalalau Valley, a dramatic landscape spectacularly wrinkled by wind, water, volcanic lava, and the spines of soaring peaks. Hidden within this 5 million-year-old topography are wild plants that exist nowhere else on earth.
Perlman is roped to the trunk of an old ‘ōhi‘a lehua tree that’s rooted on the valley rim. His body dangles parallel to the valley floor 4,000 feet below. Twisting his suntanned neck, Perlman drops his gaze into Kalalau’s impossibly beautiful bowl, scanning the cliffside for the fragile botanical treasures it holds.
Hawai‘i’s endemic plants arrived in the islands millions of years ago as seeds, mostly transported by wind or ocean currents, or in the gut of a migrating bird. From these single seeds evolved a much larger collection of species now known as Hawai‘i’s native flora.
Dubbed the endangered species capital of the world, Hawai‘i is home to hundreds of varieties of threatened plants and animals. All told, 130 of the state’s 1,360 native plant species have already gone extinct.
Cliffs are the last frontier for many of these endangered plants due to their sheer inaccessibility. A fortress of weathered basalt, preserved by extreme isolation and jagged terrain, the Kalalau sea cliffs are one of the richest remaining refuges for the state’s rare botanicals.
Predators who indiscriminately eat greens, endangered or not, can’t easily access the steep slopes. Minimal hoof traffic also means less erosion and fewer chances for the invasive weeds that tend to smother out natives to arrive and take root.
But such paradises of biodiversity are still under attack from plant disease, extreme weather, and nimble goats whose teeth threaten to chew out whole species. The loss of even just one of the delicate plant varieties ensconced in the folds of the Kalalau cliffs could hamper the natural world’s resiliency and hinder its ability to provide food, climate stabilization, and shelter.
Also at risk of being lost are any untapped medicinal powers these plants might possess. And so, it is Perlman’s job to get there first.
Descending into the Kalalau gorge, Perlman finesses his way around a precarious rotting log. He avoids entanglement with a warped tree protruding from the fluted rock, but endures a battering by weeds armed with razor-sharp thorns growing in knee-high clumps.
He seems not to notice the shallow slices now scarring his arms. He is headed to a grouping of eight shrub-like plants, which he has been checking on for years.
At the age of 69, Perlman has been an exploratory botanist for decades. A former hobbyist rock climber, Perlman moved to Hawai‘i from Colorado in the 1970s to work with plants in one of the few places in the United States where the age of botanical discovery remains far from over.
Coupling his love of bouldering and extreme hiking with the allure of Hawai‘i’s unwonted greenery, Perlman pioneered the practice of rappelling cliffs in order to scour for plants in previously uncharted terrain.
His objective then was the same as it is now: Discover and, ultimately, save rare plants from extinction.
In Hawai‘i and across the South Pacific, Perlman’s use of ropes to traverse waterfalls and scale breakneck bluffs has led to the discovery of more than 50 species, including Cyanea kolekoleensis, a vulnerable flowering plant in the lobelioid bellflower family—all of which are endemic to this island chain—that is found on Kaua‘i’s Mount Kapalaoa.
He also led the rediscovery of many plants once thought to be extinct. “There are species that evolved on cliffs … and no one had really sampled them,” Perlman says. Today, he is employed by the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resource’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program, or PEPP, which was established in 1990 to save the 239 native species left in the state that each had fewer than 50 plants remaining in the wild.
As botanists have gained a greater understanding of the plant diversity on cliffs and in other hard-to-reach places, dozens of plants have been added to the list. Only a few species have become strong enough to warrant removal from the program’s guardianship.
While plant conservation groups typically focus on regenerating endangered species in botanical gardens, PEPP targets those that still exist in nature. Guam and Puerto Rico now have plant conservation programs modeled after Hawai‘i’s.
Four days each week, Perlman hikes and rappels to remote sites, where he collects wild seed for propagation or out-plants nursery-grown species to establish new populations. Some of these sites can only be reached this way, or by helicopter.
Two hundred feet below the Kalalau ridgeline, Perlman arrives, elbows bloodied, at the site of the largest known cluster of the anomola variety of Plantago princeps in the wild.
Like a little tree, the Plantago, which is a rare flowering species in the plantain family and endemic to Hawaiʻi, has a rosette of green leaves attached to a long, woody stem. There are eight of the anomola variety on the cliff. There are two additional sites on Kaua‘i with smaller clusters of it. All told, only 16 of these particular plants exist in the wild.
“If it’s a polar bear or a panda, something that’s really cute, people want to save it,” Perlman says as he collects seed from a spiky, flowering Plantago stamen. “When it comes to plant species, often people don’t really care. … Some people think that as long as it’s still green out here, and there are guavas for the pigs to eat, then it’s no problem. But if we lose them, they’ll be gone forever.”
Of the eight Plantago plants on the Kalalau cliff face, three are in flower and one is bearing mature fruit. It is the latter that Perlman collects seeds from, noting the status of the others in his pocket field book. He tucks the seeds into a pouch on the back of his vest.
He will take them back to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, where they will be planted and nurtured. With any luck, the seeds will produce offspring that can be introduced to the wild. In a few weeks, Perlman will return to the site to collect more mature fruit.
When this Plantago princeps was first discovered on the Kalalau cliff face by Perlman’s longtime partner, Ken Wood, in the early 1990s, it was nearly double the number of plants.
Over time, goats chewed up almost half of the original population. Additional hazards have come in the form of loss of pollinators and extreme wind. Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki, for example, blew hundreds of extinction-prone species off the Kalalau cliffs.
A more sinister threat to these species is the black market for rare plants. Efforts by botanists like Perlman to keep secret the location of Hawai‘i’s most vulnerable plants are reactions to the small but destructive number of thieves who don headlamps and embark on night hikes to find and uproot plants that are as scarce as they are precious.
A single seed from an endangered palm, shrub, or flower can yield as much as 15 times the price of heartier species when sold.
Because of this threat, there are some plants of which only Perlman knows the location. But it’s not clear how much longer he will be able to protect them since the current fiscal climate for environmental programs like PEPP are bleak.
Last fiscal year, PEPP was only able to raise 75 percent of its $1 million budget, with 90 percent of funds coming from federal monies. The program’s budget is poised for another 25 percent reduction in the upcoming fiscal year, which would effectively reduce the current program by half.
PEPP hopes to bolster its funding with help from private sources, including members of the public who understand how much there is to lose.
Meanwhile, fresh threats, such as new slug species, are surfacing. A botanist may spend years encouraging a plant to thrive, only to suddenly lose it to an unexpected pest, or to the mouth of a hungry goat. Perlman estimates that he’s watched a couple dozen plants go extinct during his four decades of work.
It can be hard not to feel defeated, he admits. “There are people who have become depressed about this, people who actually have to take medication, like Prozac,” Perlman says. “You go out there to a plant you’ve been collecting seed from for years—you’ve been monitoring it for years, it’s like a member of your family—and it dies. It’s sad. It’s really tragic. It’s like working in hospice for plants.”
For 25 years, Perlman cared for a Brighamia insignis (known as Hawaiian palm, ʻōlulu, or colloquially as “cabbage on a stick”) on Kaua‘i’s Mount Haupu. When he discovered the endangered succulents here in 1977, there were a dozen plants in number.
But over time, the endemic cluster was whittled down to a single survivor, and when Perlman arrived to the site one day in 2002, he found that this remaining Hawaiian palm had died. Perlman unearthed it, ripping its roots from the ground.
Then, succulent in hand, he drove to a bar and ordered a drink. Setting the wilted plant down on a table, he gave it a heartfelt toast. He called his wife to say he wouldn’t be home for a while, before proceeding to drown his sorrow in beer.
Later that night, Perlman wrote a poem about the death of Mount Haupu’s last Brighamia insignis:
“Slowly, and without any fanfare These jewels of creation have slipped Into oblivion Nevermore to grace our world O man, who can measure What we have lost?”
Today, only one Brighamia insignis is believed to be left in the wild. But Perlman is comforted by a simple, scientific fact: There is still hope. “Isn’t that incredible?” Perlman says. “Even when you’re down to one plant left, it is not doomed. We don’t give up, because diversity can come back. All of these plants have a fighting chance.”