Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Dunes Of Mo'omomi

"AT FIRST GLANCE the dunes of Mo'omomi appear nearly barren. The far cliffs of Mokio are dim in the salt haze, and arid scrub-wind whipped into curious forms-clings tenaciously to the sandy soils. And yet the site is rich in life; indeed, it is a last refuge for Hawaiian coastal vegetation. Within vast, integrated communities of nearly undisturbed native grasses and shrubs grow more rare coastal species than any other single place in the islands. What remains at Mo'omomi is a vestige of a major Hawaiian coastal ecosystem, a holdover from an ancient era.

Here, the shrubby ocean naupaka (Scaevola sericea- the most common of the islands' native coastal plants-shares the coastal strand with a beach morning glory (Ipomoea pescaprae), and with a mix of less frequently seen endemic Hawaiian plants. Carpets of rolling 'aki'aki grasslands provide a stabilized bed in the shifting dunes for a rare native nightshade, Solanum nelsoni.

In exposed patches of red volcanic soil, an endangered beach legume, the 'ohai (Sesbania tomentosa) flaunts its brilliant red flowers set on low-lying branches that seem espaliered by the wind against a backdrop of rocky terrain. No fewer than five globally endangered plant species make their last stand at Mo'omomi.

Among these is a native Gnaphalium, called 'ena'ena by the Hawaiians, that punctuates the sandstone plain with radient white foliage. Its succulent leaves are thickly covered with fine, sun reflecting hairs-a protective strategy common in the parched flats of Mo'omomi.

Another native plant, a heliotrope, forms silvery mats in the lee of consolidated dune crests. Its whorled, diminutive leaves also are clothed with delicate reflective hairs. The heliotrope's Hawaiian name, hinahina, evokes an image of the moon rising fully over an ocean horizon. (In Hawaiian mythology, the moon embodied a goddess, Hina-the mother of the island of Molokai. It seems appropriate that the island chain's best examples of hinahina occur on Molokai.)

Heliotropium growing with Nama sandwicensis, endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and the only member of the Hydrophyllaceae that grows on the archipelago. Its flowers are tiny and dark lavender in color.

Other plants to be found here include the Hawaiian endemic Chamaesyce degeneri, which the Hawaiians call `akoko or just koko. This species belongs to the Euphorbiaceae.

Also abundant among the sand banks is the Hawaiian endemic Lipochaeta integrifolia (Asteraceae). This island endemic genus, referred to in general as nehe in Hawaiian, is represented in the islands by some 20 species.

It is difficult to picture the ancient dry forest that once stood where Mo'omomi's dunes now hold sway. But, from what we know of remnant low-land dry forests at other sites in the Hawaiian islands, a diverse blending of trees with no single dominant species might have existed. Here in the dappled sunlight beneath the forest canopy, honks of giant flightless geese once joined the chorus of the ocean waves. Today the dunes and their specialized flora distinguish Mo'omomi, and the sands have preserved the area's singular fossils and artifacts...

The coastline of the Hawaiian islands perhaps have seen more change than any other biological zone in the entire chain. No wonder so many people regard saving Mo'omomi as a rare opportunity to preserve a living portion of the past for the future. The Hawaiian green sea turtles attempting to recolonize here are a hopeful sign that the coastal dunes can endure, even recover, if we acknowledge their significance with action." ~Samuel M. Gon III, The Dunes of Mo'omomi, article featured in The Nature Conservancy News Feb/March 1987

Photo's by: Bruce A. Bohm
Photo of 'ohai by: Kim & Forest Starr