“Velvet Tree” Chokes out Native Plants

Miconia, “The Velvet Tree,” has become one of Hawaii’s most invasive plant species. Although conservationists see little hope for eradication, they do aim to manage its spread.

When it comes to invasive species, stopping a problem before it grows out of control is always the best solution. In Hawaii the Miconia plant is case and point of the damages a species can cause if left unchecked. Miconia, also known as the “Velvet Tree” is an invasive weed that the Hawaii Invasive Species Council considers to be the most damaging invasive plant in the state. The devastating impacts it has on the native ecosystem has earned it the nickname “the velvet cancer.”

Miconia, a plant native to South America, was first noted in Hawaii at a botanical garden in 1959. It has since prompted invasive species management in the state. Conservationists are concerned that the invasive plant might be too widespread to fully eradicate. Christy Martin, a public information officer for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species commented:

Our hope is to find biocontrols that are able to at least make the plant behave better.

island conservation miconia hawaii forest

Miconia grows in tall, dense patches which block sunlight for the native understory. Credit: David Elckhoff

Miconia is highly invasive throughout Hawaii due to its high seed output and the dense patches it grows in (which block out light for native species). A single plant can produce 1 million seeds which can remain viable but dormant in the seed bank of the soil for up to 15 years. Miconia’s invasive traits have made it one of the most damaging plants in the state. Franny Kinslow Brewer, communications director for the Big Island Invasive Species Council explained:

Even if you control the adult plants, the seed bank is just going to go on and on and on.

Although conservationists see little hope for eradicating the invasive plant, they are attempting to control its spread so that Hawaii does not end up like Tahiti, where the Miconia displaced almost two-thirds of native forests since its initial introduction in the 1930’s.

Researchers have determined that the best hope for controlling the continued spread of the species is the use of biocontrols, which would stop or slow the rate of Miconia establishment in new areas. The attempted controls of Miconia in the past have revealed the best ways to try and control invasive species. The lesson here is clear – the faster you catch an invasive species the better, but when extensive damage is already done, management is still very important.

Featured photo: Coconut Coast – Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve. Credit: Kwong Yee Cheng
Source: Hawaii Tribune-Herald

About Emily Heber

Emily is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered that she had a passion for the conservation of endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her the opportunity to share her passion for animals with others, something she seeks to continue doing while working with the communication team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the amazing hiking trails found in Santa Cruz and tries to SCUBA dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and to help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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