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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 25, 2001

Islands wage war against Miconia

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Miconia is a large exotic plant that traveled great distances before reaching the Big Island in 1959 to begin a frightening invasion. It showed up when a Hilo plant hobbyist brought seeds from Tahiti where it had been introduced from South America in the 1930s.

The appeal may have been the deep rich purple color on the back side of the Miconia leaf, which can span three feet. But Miconia, a noxious weed that grows to tree size with a stalk diameter of up to 14 inches, is considered a major threat to native plants.

On the Big Island, the Sierra Club and the Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board — often foes on development issues — joined forces four years ago to combat the invasion.

Maui is also fighting an active battle against the weedy tree on the wet slopes of East Maui at Hana and surrounding areas, where it threatens Haleakala National Park. Miconias on O'ahu and Kaua'i, once considered eradicated, repeatedly pop up.

Liz Barton of Hilo has been volunteering for more than three years in the war against Miconia.

"It's lunacy" she said of the many weekend treks into the woods to destroy the plant before it wipes out native forest components such as hapu'u fern trees and the 'ohi'a-lehua. The invader has not reached koa forests yet.

The miconia blossoms four times annually, sending out millions of seeds each time. They are spread mainly by exotic birds. Seed pods the size of raisins remain viable for up to eight years. That requires work crews to return to areas cleaned of miconia to search for new plants.

Trees grow so closely together they deny sunlight to the less competitive native plants. "You need a flashlight to see (under the canopy) at high noon," said Nelson Ho, who helps educate the public about the plant.

It was mostly retirees in the beginning. That has changed in recent years, according to Barton, pointing to University of Hawai'i-Hilo students from the Bayanihan Club, and Hilo High juniors who have signed on.

It is hard, sweaty work, aggravated by mosquitoes and thorny underbrush. Volunteers hack through jungle to reach the trees.

Ho started as a Sierra Club volunteer and began sounding an alarm for action in 1992. He now works full time as a public educator for the state Agriculture Department and is guiding the fight, which he sees as far from over.

The state employs helicopters to spot plants in places that may have been missed. Volunteers are trained to rappel — drop off step 100-foot cliffs — to destroy the hard-to-reach plants.

Bob Saunders is president of W.H. Shipman Ltd. during the week and volunteers on the weekends with his daughter.

"This provided true common ground. We found we work together extremely well," said the executive of his new environmental friends.

On Maui, acting superintendent Nellie Fong of Haleakala National Park said officials are treating the threat from the pest as an emergency.

It was planted on East Maui near Hana by a botanical garden operator who introduced it there in 1990. Maui plants are not as widespread as the Big Island but the terrain makes them more difficult to reach.

For now, the main focus is to keep it from reaching the park. The same goal has been achieved for now on the Big Island.

The 225,000-acre Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park was spared when volunteers established a border to avoid further spread of miconia to the south and east.

Ho and Fong credit private landowners with cooperating in efforts to eliminate the plant. Ho said field crews have combed about 20,000 Big Island acres. Potential for the spread is estimated around two million acres.