A critical partnership has saved the species Pritchardia schattaueri, which was down to 12 individuals just 30 years ago, all of them growing on actor Jimmy Stewart’s Hoʻomau Ranch in South Kona.
Today, more than 600 of the palms are flourishing at the Kona Hema Preserve, thanks to the collaboration of discoverer George Schattauer, the Kona Palm Society, the Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy.
In 1960, while working as manager of Stewart’s Hawaiʻi Island ranch, Schattauer stood and watched as a tractor cleared an area for pasture in South Kona. He was soon startled to see what looked like a palm tree near where the machines were working. Deciding to get a closer look, he walked up to the giant tree—well over 100 feet tall—and realized he was looking at a rare native palm.
The Honolulu Botanical Garden later identified it as a new species of Pritchardia, Hawaii’s onlypalm genus. The new species was unique to Hawaiʻi Island and to the South Kona area and was one of islands’ largest Pritchardias, able to grow to 130 feet.
Schattauer ensured the protection of the handful of trees on Stewart’s Hoʻomau Ranch. The species ultimately was named for Schattauer, who died in 2005. They are a federally listed endangered species.
In 2001, the Kona Palm Society collected more seeds from the same trees that Schattauer had saved from the bulldozer. The Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden ensured their propagation and a partnership formed between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy to reintroduce the endangered seedlings at the Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve. The preserve was selected because it lies near the site where the original trees were found and has similar environmental and climate conditions.
The entire 8,081-acre Kona Hema Preserve is fenced and free of hooved animals that could threaten the palms. 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.
Pritchardia is a Pacific palm genus, and the only palm native to Hawaiʻi. 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 Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
The trees were important parts of the Hawaiian environment. Their seeds were the main food for the Hawaiian honeycreeper ʻula-ai-hāwane, whose name translates “red bird that eats loulu fruit.” Early Hawaiians also used the seeds for food, and employed their leaves for thatching.
The Kona Hema stand of Pritchardia schattaueri has trees of various ages up to about 13 years. The tallest of them is now more than 15 feet high.