The Amazing Radiation of Hawaii's Lobeliads

Hawai'i is home to so many interesting species of plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. One group, however, stands out among the rest in that it represents the largest plant radiation not just in Hawai'i but on any island archipelago in the world!

I am of course talking about the Hawaiian lobelioids. We are familiar with species found on North America, which include the lovely cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), but the 6 genera that comprise the Hawaiian radiation are something quite different altogether.

Numbering roughly 125 species in total (and many extinct species as well), it was long thought that they were the result of at least 3 separate invasions. Thanks to recent DNA analysis, it is now believed that all 6 genera are the result of one single invasion by a lobelia-like ancestor. This may seem ridiculous but, when you consider the fact that this invasion happened back when Gardner Pinnacles and French Frigate Shoals were actual islands and none of the extant islands were even in existence, then you can kind of grasp the time scales involved that produced such a drastic and varied radiation.

Sadly, like countless Hawaiian endemics, the invasion of the human species has spelled disaster. Hawaiian endemics are declining at an alarming rate. Introduced pigs and rats eat seeds, devour seedlings, and even go as far as to chew right through the stems of adult plants. To make matters worse, many species evolved to a specific suite of pollinators. Take the genus Clermontia for example. The flowers of these species are evolved for pollination by the island's endemic honey creepers. Due to avian malaria and other human impacts, many honey creepers are endangered and some have already gone extinct. Without their pollinators, many of these lobelioids are doomed to slow extinction if they haven't disappeared already. For some, what few populations remain are now fenced off and have to be hand pollinated. As I have said all too often, the future of this great radiation of plants is uncertain.

Photo Credits: Oakapples (, Forest and Kim Starr (, Dave Janas

Further Reading:

Brother of Hibiscus

Islands are known for their interesting flora and fauna. Until humans came on the scene, colonization events by different species on different islands were probably rare events, with long stretches of time in between. Because of this, islands are interesting experiments in evolution, often having endemic species found nowhere else in the world. Hawai'i was once home to many different kinds of endemic species. One such group are the Hibiscadelphus.

As you may have gathered by the name, Hibiscadelphus is a relative of hibiscus. The Latin name means "brother of Hibiscus." Unlike the widely splayed flowers of their relatives, Hibiscadelphus flowers never fully open. Instead, they form a tubular structure with a curved lower lip. The genus consists of 7 species. Four of these have gone completely extinct, two are only maintained in cultivation, and the remainder is barely holding on. There have been attempts to reestablish some species into other portions of their range but due to hybridization, these attempts were ceased. In my opinion this is a shame. In this case, a hybrid is better than losing both parental species and it would still be uniquely Hawaiian.

Why are Hibiscadelphus so rare? Well, humans have a sad history when it comes to colonizing islands. They bring with them a multitude of invasive species at a rate in which the local flora and fauna cannot adapt. They change the land through cultivation and development as well as by subduing natural fire regimes. Also, they wipe out keystone species, which causes a ripple effect throughout the environment. Hibiscadelphus have faced all of these threats and more. Pigs and rats eat their seeds, their habitats have been turned over for the ever-increasing human population, fires have been stopped, and some of their pollinators, the endemic honeycreepers, have also been driven to extinction thanks to avian pox and malaria. Sadly, this is a story that repeats itself time and time again all over the world. For now, the future of Hibiscadelphus is rather bleak.

Photo Credit: David Eickhoff

Further Reading: