Mauna Kea Silversword – The Flower of Patience Is Breathtaking As It Towers Over 6 Ft Tall And Grows On The Side Of A Volcano

Mauna Kea Silversword
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When we think of endangered species on our vast, beautiful Earth, we typically think only of animals, but there are many plants out there that are also endangered, with unique characteristics you won’t find anywhere else.  One of them is the Mauna Kea silversword, also known as the Ahinahina, a rare and endangered plant species that is found only on the slopes of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. 

This unusual plant, unique to  the Big Island of Hawaii, just might be the rarest plant you’ll ever see. And if you do spot one in bloom, be sure to savor the moment, as it likely took decades to yield such beautiful flowers.

This “Flower of Patience” is the Mauna Kea Silversword, which comes from the Argyroxiphium sandwicense subspecies. This towering flower has been leaving visitors mesmerized for generations. 

Mauna Kea Silversword

It starts out as a small, arid shrub, taking its sweet time before growing to into its most beautiful and vibrant self. It is a member of the sunflower family and is notable for its unique appearance and adaptation to the harsh environmental conditions of its habitat.

This species is said to be the “Crown Jewel” of the island of Hawaii (Big Island), and it only grows at one specific place, with a lifespan of up to 90 years. The flower’s message to the world, aside from its stunning natural beauty, is patience, hence its nickname: “The Flower of Patience.”

The Mauna Kea silversword has a striking appearance with a rosette of long, silvery, metallic colored leaves that form a dense clump up to 30 inches in diameter. The leaves are covered with fine white hairs that help to reflect sunlight and protect the plant from the intense UV radiation and cold temperatures of the mountain environment. 

Mauna Kea Silversword

The silversword has no stem or branches and can reach a height of up to 6 feet when it sends up a tall flowering stalk, which can produce up to 600 small, purple flowers.

The Mauna Kea Silversword has a lifespan of between 20 to 90 years, but is known to only flower once in its lifespan. Oftentimes at a rate of about once every seven years, although this varies greatly from flower-to-flower. 

It can be found growing on the dormant volcanic mountain Mauna Kea at elevations above 2,600 meters (8,500 feet), one of the most stunning locations on the Big Island. The flower may also be found on one of Earth’s most active volcanoes, Mauna Loa, and is a nationally recognized symbol of Hawaii’s tropical dreamscape.

Mauna Kea Silversword

The Mauna Kea silversword is a highly specialized plant that is adapted to the harsh, alpine conditions of the upper slopes of Mauna Kea, which have low soil nutrients, high winds, and extreme temperature fluctuations. The plant has a deep taproot that allows it to access water and nutrients from deep in the volcanic soil, and it can survive for up to 50 years.

While the Mauna Kea Silversword was once fairly common on the Big Island, its numbers are now in jeopardy.

The Mauna Kea Silversword is highly vulnerable to human disturbance and habitat destruction, and its populations have declined due to overgrazing by feral sheep and goats, as well as habitat destruction by development and recreational activities. Currently, the endangered Mauna Kea Silversword is listed as “vulnerable,” with its numbers on the verge of increasing thanks to conservation efforts and educational outreach.

Conservation efforts for the Mauna Kea silversword have included the creation of protected areas and the removal of feral animals from the habitat, as well as habitat restoration and propagation efforts. 
The plant is also protected under the Endangered Species Act, and its survival is considered critical for the overall health and conservation of the unique ecosystem of Mauna Kea.
Mauna Kea Silversword

There are 3 Types of Mauna Kea Silverswords

When referring to the species Argyroxiphium sandwicense there are two subspecies, each of which is extremely rare and threatened. As such, they are both federally protected.

The first and perhaps most well-known silversword is of the subspecies macrocephalum and is known as the East Maui silversword, or the Haleakala silversword. The Haleakala species is unique to all the world on Maui and is considered by many to be the most beautiful.

Subspecies sandwicense is known as the Mauna Kea silversword, which is very similar to the Haleakala silversword, although its flower head is a bit narrower and it tends to yield fewer flowers.

A third close relative, the Mauna Loa silversword or Kau Silversword (Argyroxiphium kauense) can be found on the eastern and southern slopes of Mauna Loa. Fewer than 1,000 plants (and as few as 500 by some estimates) of this variety remain.

Mauna Kea Silversword

Even with ongoing efforts to protect the Hawaiian silverswords, these plants are still at risk. We must all do our part to ensure that these amazing plants remain for generations to come. When visiting silversword habitats, always stay on marked trails to avoid damaging their very delicate root structures or inadvertently stepping on their fragile seedlings. And of course, never touch or handle any part of the plant.

Booking tours with reputable tour companies supports a network of socially-responsible tour operators who do their best to ensure the well being of both their guests as well as Hawaii’s delicate ecosystems. Considering its location on one of the most beautiful places on Earth, a trip to Mauna Kea is well worth adding to your “bucket list” to see and photograph this rare flower!

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