Eye on Plants: Hibiscus kokio subsp. saintjohnianus

In 1955, a 37 family-strong community alliance called Hui Kuai Aina o Haena that had owned the ahupuaa (watershed and coastal lands) of Haena on Kauai’s north shore for nearly 100 years, began partitioning the region. By 1967, a third-generation member of the group, Juliet Rice Wichman, had negotiated ownership Haena’s Limahuli Valley.

A Love of Hibiscus and Hawaiian Plants

Juliet, a lover of Hawaiian plants, with a passion for collecting and growing hibiscus, had a vision to protect Limahuli which she recognized as culturally important and ecologically fragile. In 1967, she began removing cattle from the valley so the plants could start to recover. She also launched the restoration of centuries-old dry-wall style kalo loi (taro terraces).

By 1976 Limahuli was home to a small but growing botanical garden where 3,300-feet high valley walls had sheltered undiscovered rare plants for centuries.

Seeking to ensure her vision of restoration would continue in perpetuity, Juliet and her son Charles gifted the 13-acre Limahuli Garden to the PTBG — Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden. In 1994, the property grew to over 1,000 acres when Juliet’s grandson Chipper and his wife Hauoli gifted the entire valley to the Garden.

That Garden (now called NTBG) accepted the kuleana (responsibility) to malama (care for) the land as Juliet and others had done before. PTBG Director Dr. William Theobold recognized that because Limahuli had never been cultivated for large-scale agriculture, it held great promise for undiscovered native plant varieties, forms, and possibly even endemic species.

In 1977 Theobold called for the first-ever botanical survey of the valley, assigning the task to staff including Chipper who, at the encouragement of his grandmother, had completed the Garden’s internship in 1977 and was working as a head groundsman.

Hidden in the Valley

That summer Chipper, along with other staff, explored Limahuli’s deepest recesses, gullies, ridges and streamside. Among their findings: at least 88 Polynesian introduced and rare, endemic species including Lobeliods, Cyanea, Psychotria, native sandalwood (iliahi), ebony (lama), and many others.

Chipper reported finding two new color variations of Hibiscus saintjohnianus which had been previously identified as endemic to Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. The newly discovered forms (later classified as Hibiscus kokio subsp. saintjohnianus) extended the species’ known range and diversity.

In the PTBG Bulletin of January 1978, Chipper wrote: “One of the forms we found has bright orange petals with a creamy yellow, almost ivory colored staminal column, while another form has petals which are red with just a tinge of orange.”

In the late 1990s, noted wildlife photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager spent months documenting life in the Hawaiian Islands for what would become their landmark book Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii. When they came to shoot in Limahuli Valley, they worked closely with Chipper.

Years later, Middleton recalled her introduction to kokio ulaula. “Chipper enthusiastically showed me what was clearly one of his favorites — a shrub with deep green leaves and striking orange flowers.”

Bold And Bright

Unlike other Hawaiian flora which she found to be subtle, even shy, kokio ulaula was bold and bright. Middleton remembers thinking, “stunning — a world class plant!”

“They must have taken 500 photographs…” Chipper said of the encounter. The shoot resulted in Limahuli’s brilliant orange hibiscus being featured prominently on the title page of the iconic book.

Decades later Middleton still associates the striking orange hibiscus with Chipper and the Limahuli Valley. Kokio ulaula, she says, represents “the exquisite beauty, elegance, and value of Hawai‘i’s rare native plants.”

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