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Rare loulu palm thriving in Kona preserve

Updated: 
June 21, 2014 - 12:05am

In the 1960s, Hoomau Ranch Manager George Schattauer discovered a rare, native palm on the South Kona property, owned by actor Jimmy Stewart.

Schattauer’s discovery was a loulu, eventually identified by the Honolulu Botanical Garden as a new species of Pritchardia that at the time grew only on Stewart’s ranch. It was also one of the state’s largest Pritchardias, able to grow up to 130 feet tall. He spotted the tree just as a tractor was about to clear an area of the ranch for pasture, including the palm tree that was already more than 100 feet tall.

Thirty years ago, only a dozen of the trees were known to exist, all on Hoomau Ranch. Today, The Nature Conservancy has more than 600 loulu growing in its Kona Hema Preserve.

“It’s one of the most important things I was involved in while working at Kona Hema Preserve,” Field Coordinator Mel Johansen said.

The trees The Nature Conservancy has been planting there will likely live much longer than he’ll be working at the preserve, he said. The trees can live upwards of 200 years, according to some estimates.

The conservancy has planted many kinds of native species in the preserve over the years, Johansen said.

“We’ve had failures of outplanted species,” he said. “The loulu seems to be among the best. We’ve had survival rates of about 95 percent.”

The tree probably thrived on the island prior to the arrival of humans, he said. The introduction of pigs and later rats was likely the cause of the tree’s eventual demise.

It wasn’t a surprise that Schattauer was able to identify the tree as a loulu and not mistake it with other types of fan palms, Johansen said.

“He was very knowledgeable,” Johansen said, adding that he grew up with Schattauer’s son and knew Schattauer, who died in 2005. “He was a professional. He was an ag major. He had a passion for native, endemic plants. When he saw it, he knew it was something special.”

The tree makes a unique rustling sound when the wind blows, Johansen said, one he particularly enjoys.

The Nature Conservancy worked with the ranch, as well as the Kona Palm Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to collect and propagate the seeds. The Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden was also involved in propagating the seeds, conservancy officials said.

They selected the Kona Hema Preserve, which covers 8,081 acres, as the site to grow the new trees because it is near the site where the original trees were found and has similar environmental and climate conditions, officials said. The oldest of the outplanted trees is about 13 years old. The tallest already tops 15 feet.

The entire preserve is fenced and free of hooved animals that could threaten the palms, Johansen said.

“The genetic diversity of the remaining palms is being protected by carefully tracking which of the plantings come from which of the dozen original wild trees,” a conservancy press release said.

Officials said Pritchardia is a Pacific palm genus, and the only palm native to Hawaii. While a few species exist on other Pacific islands, the widest diversity of Pritchardias is in the Hawaiian Islands, where more than 20 species exist. Species are found on most of the main islands, and a small forest exists on Nihoa, the easternmost island in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The Hawaiian honeycreeper, the ula-ai-hawane, ate the trees’ seeds as one of its main foods. Hawaiians used the seeds for food. They also used the leaves to create thatching.

This particular species was given the name schattaueri after Schattauer.