Monday, March 31, 2008

Sago Palms and the Java Jive

If your sago palm -- actually a cycad -- looks like it has a bad case of dandruff, or worse yet, has turned completely dead brown, you’re not alone. Sago palms, once popular in local Japanese style gardens, have been so plagued with cycad scale in recent years that many landscapers have given up on them entirely. Nurseries used to have to keep up with the demand for the cycads; now frustrated gardeners practically have to con someone to take theirs away.

Cycad scale is difficult to treat with chemical controls since the scale has a protective hard covering and it resides on the undersides of fronds. A brochure on cycad scale from UH CTAHR instead recommends relying on the natural and highly effective biocontrol by a tiny black lady beetle, Rhyzobius lophanthae. You can check with your neighbors to see if anyone has the beetles on their cycads. If they do, you can initiate a beetle relocation program to speed up the process – just snip off some fronds with the beetles and then place the fronds on top of your affected cycad. If you don’t do this, however, you probably will eventually get the beetles anyway if your infestation is bad enough. I ended up just boloheading all the fronds and waiting for a new flush, which also works.

However, then there’s the heartbreak of reinfestation. For this the president of the Hawaii Island Palm Society, Dr. Don Hemmes, recommends that you get yourself some coffee. No, not a double espresso, but coffee grounds cast off from your favorite barista. Spread a thick layer of coffee grounds on the soil around the base of the sago palm, and waiter, waiter, percolator, no more cycad scale! Why does it work? Hemmes says the theory is that cycad scale spends part of its life cycle on the ground, and for some reason it seems to hate coffee, thus the infestation cycle is broken.

Of course, I had to try this out for myself because I need lots of excuses to hang out in coffee shops, especially because I’m a tea drinker and write bad poetry. The good news: As you can see in the top photo, so far my sago palm is flushing out and still looking fabulous, and trust me, it smells like Starbucks. The bad news: People are catching on to the free coffee ground remedy, so you have to go early in the day before it’s all been cockaroached. So far my poetry hasn’t gotten any better, either.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Naupaka kahakai

If you live by the ocean and want to create large, lush, green hedges for privacy, your best bet is naupaka kahakai (Scaevola sericea). This week I joined some friends on a camping trip to Kiholo Bay, where many of the private estates there used naupaka kahakai to full advantage in their landscapes.

Neatly trimmed hedges of naupaka kahakai, also known as beach naupaka, accentuate the strong, clean architectural lines of Dr. Earl Bakken’s estate.

In contrast, naupaka kahakai grows in its natural form at the entrance to Paul Mitchell’s Bali house, complementing its informal, exotic design. Naupaka kahakai also provides a low-maintenance windbreak against onshore winds here.

The seeds of this indigenous native most likely floated to Hawai'i centuries ago. Experiments have shown that naupaka seeds will sprout even after soaked in saltwater for 250 days. This succulent is possibly the easiest native plant to grow, and it’s a cinch to propagate it from seeds or cuttings. Naupaka kahakai withstands salt spray and sandy soil, and it has few diseases and pests.

If you enjoy snorkeling – and if you go to Kiholo Bay you’ll definitely want to -- you can use the leaf of the naupaka to defog your mask. Crush or break a leaf and rub the inside of your mask with the sap.

As always, respect the privacy of residents and don't disturb the protected wildlife.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Native Adaptations

Pity poor Charles Darwin. He went to South America, but never made it to Hawai'i. If he had, he would have not only escaped all those mosquitoes but he also would have been astounded by the incredible endemism that evolved here. Ninety percent of native Hawaiian plants are endemic, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world. Instead of the Galapagos, Hawai'i would had been ground zero for the theory of evolution, and maybe people would have clamored to preserve native Hawaiian species before they went extinct or became endangered. Imagine rewriting every history and science textbook around the world to put the spotlight on Hawai'i!

From mountain to sea, native plant species have unique adaptations that help them survive. Take a hike to celebrate their beauty and learn more about them, and you might also get some ideas for landscaping your own yard. Remember, don't collect propagative material unless you are allowed to -- in many cases, you need permits to collect from the wild. Purchasing native plants from a reputable nursery is a hassle-free, low-impact way to furnish your garden.

This week my plant-geek travels went from a secluded sandy beach in Miloli'i to the very top of snowy Mauna Kea.

MAKAI: (Below) ‘Ae‘ae (Bacopa monnieri) and a native sedge (Cyperus sp.) blanket a semishady seep area at a beach of white and black sand. ‘Ae‘ae makes a good ground cover around shrubs in small areas and both can do quite well in most coastal home landscapes when maintained with regular weeding and adequate watering.

MAUKA: At the alpine scrub zone on Mauna Kea, pukiawe (Styphelia tameiameiae) and hinahina (Geranium cuneatum) grow together where water collects in cracks and crevices. Pukiawe is a tough plant adapted to harsh, dry conditions at low and high elevations, which makes it great for xeriscaping in home gardens, and it is slow-growing. On the other hand, this native alpine geranium is able to survive only in these cooler temperatures and won't do well at lower elevations. Just enjoy the view.

Though one wouldn’t have any success growing them even if you could plant them in a backyard, one can certainly appreciate the endangered Ahinahina in the wild, also known as silverword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense). This stunning sunflower relative has been outplanted in exclosures to keep out feral sheep and goats that love to nibble on them. Have a look at this endemic species in the area adjacent to the parking lot at the Mauna Kea visitor information station at 9,200 feet.

Both the native geranium and silversword have silvery leaves that reflect the greater levels of ultraviolet light at this high altitude, an adaptation that allows them to survive here on Mauna Kea.

Hope you get out and enjoy the true nature of Hawai'i this week, too.

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
-- John Muir

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Volcanic Acid Rain

Unusually hot, dry weather and increased voggy air quality is making me the only slug in my garden these days.

Watery eyes, stuffy sinuses, and an overall feeling that one should lie down like Dorothy in a field of poppies outside Oz are just some of the symptoms many Hawai'i Island residents are experiencing with the natural volcanic air pollution from the new lava flow in Kalapana. The publicly accessible flow going through Royal Gardens and down to the ocean is putting on a spectacular show for residents and tourists alike, and it’s also filling the skies with two to four times more SO2 (sulfur dioxide), a component of acid rain. Although we haven’t had substantial rain in Hilo for the past week or more (proof that it doesn’t always rain in Hilo!), when the rain returns in earnest we may have to bear of the effects of volcanic acid rain on our plants, too.

Clean air is vital to growing healthy plants, and vog and acid rain has been the cause of many frustrating crop failures on the Big Island. Foliage and delicate flowers get burnt by SO2 emissions, and entire nurseries can be wiped out. What can be done about it? A Kurtistown nursery owner told me she tries to shut the vog out of her greenhouse using curtains. Sometimes it works, but sometimes the vog is so bad it just permeates through anyway and she loses stock. "I try to trim the burnt parts off, but then everything looks like stems and sticks and I have to just dump them," she said, shrugging it off with a laugh, dealing with it like a true kama'aina.

Indeed, it’s all just Pele doing her thing, and again we’re reminded of the whims and power of nature. Unfortunately, what's a bummer for the backyard gardener is economic ruin for some farmers and the further weakening of our already fragile agriculture industry on Hawai’i Island.

Some native Hawaiian plants are adapted to survive in vog and acid rain conditions. On the trail to the lava viewing point there were pioneer plants such as the tough kupukupu fern, for example. These natives are perfect for landscaping in lava hazard zones especially in the district of Puna, where a lot of new landscaping has been going in. The population in Puna has increased dramatically in the past five years, predominately with an influx of newcomers from the continental U.S. Much to their surprise, what works in gardens back in North America doesn’t make a flourishing Eden here.

Too often landowners bulldoze from pin to pin, taking down native ‘ohi’a lehua, uluhe and hapu’u ferns. When their lots of lava are scrubbed clean of vegetation, they quickly discover that if they don’t plant something soon they’ll be inundated with weeds. So they ask the UH extension service what kind of plants are easy to grow in pahoehoe lava. Hmm…how about ‘ohi’a lehua, uluhe and hapu’u ferns, the things that you just bulldozed and that had been growing for the past 30 years or more?

If you’ve just moved there, Malama O Puna is more than happy to give you advice on the best native plants to grow and what plants to avoid in your area. Call them at 808-965-2000, or contact them through their website here.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Organic Ornamentals

It was that time again. The Big Island Association of Nurserymen holds a huge annual plant sale at Edith Kanakaole Stadium in Hilo to raise money for their scholarship fund for University of Hawaii at Hilo agriculture students, and this year’s event was held this past weekend. Plantophiles swarmed into the stadium on the first evening like Chinese rose beetles descending on a veritable feast for the gardening soul. There’s always something new and interesting at the plant sale, and it’s just fun to schmooze with plant people, see what the popular items are and say hi to friends and neighbors. For example, nurseryman Christopher Lichty of Pacific Orchid Farms drew a crowd of kama'aina anthurium collectors who came to talk story and pick up a few more varieties.

“Keep your hands in your pockets,” my wiser, frugal friend warned me at the door, to no avail. As usual, I brought out the folding green for the growing green. (At least it wasn’t Benjamins.)

Schaffer Family Farm of Glenwood, near Volcano, was also there with their organically grown ornamental plants. Organically grown food farms are booming across the nation, and organically grown ornamental plants are the next niche market ready to blossom, say some nursery industry experts. Schaffer Family Farm uses organic fertilizers and mulch harvested locally on the Big Island.

For fertilizer the Schaffers use chicken manure collected from an egg farm below Waimea, which unfortunately, is closing this year due to high operating costs, much to the chagrin of locavores. Nick Schaffer told me his family uses “beach mulch” collected near the mouth of the Wailuku River at Hilo bayfront – they wash it for about 20 minutes to remove excess salts. A bucket of the stuff looks like clean, dark leaf mold, and Schaffer says that he had it tested years ago by the National Resource Conservation Service and it was found to be especially high in phosphorus, as well as having good amounts of potassium and nitrogen.

“Plants love the stuff,” says Schaffer. This bush lily, Clivia nobilis, seems to concur. Hopefully, we will see Hawai’i nurseries experimenting more with locally available materials as demand increases for organic, sustainably produced ornamental plants.

Ivory Nuts

“When people come to my place, they inevitably are drawn to the ivory nut palm I have planted in the the middle of a big area. When they see the nuts, they always pick them up and hold them. It’s like it wakes something up in them, like they’ve seen God, and suddenly have they have this connection with the earth,” says David Bennett, a grower of exotic tropical fruit, especially mangosteen, in Hakalau. Since I am a sucker reborn every minute and not one to miss out on a botanically transcendent experience, I purchased a few at the BIAN plant sale to take home: one for my brother, one to leave on my desk and meditate on, and one to try germinating.

There are several kinds of Ivory Nut palm, but this one, Metroxylon amicarum, is native to the Caroline Islands. The white endosperm of the nut is extremely hard, like elephant ivory tusk – you need a hacksaw to cut through it. It’s sometimes referred to as “vegetable ivory” and is used by jewelry makers, woodworkers, and by scrimshaw artists as a substitute for whalebone.

People concerned about the environment encourage the planting of this threatened ivory nut palm to give it more economic status, to preserve it as a rainforest species and to promote its use as an alternative to animal ivory. If you’re thinking about planting one, know that the tree can grow pretty close to heaven, about 80 feet. Read more about ivory nut palm here.