The Miconia plant has taken root on an island far from its origins in native Mexico. The islands of Hawai’i are the unlucky recipients of the Miconia, a plant that seems determined to take over the vegetation of the tropic islands. It was first transported from Mexico as a decorative plant, considered beautiful because of the brilliant coloring of its leaves’ undersides. Upon introduction to Hawai’i, the Miconia soon flourished and spread. Currently, it can be found occupying 10,000 acres on the Big Island.
The plant endangers native species by growing above the vegetation line and blocking the sunlight from the plants below. Starved for the light they need to live, native plants die, leaving Miconia roots the only ones supporting the soil. Because Miconia roots are few and relatively shallow, the danger of erosion quickly becomes a reality in Miconia-dominated areas of forest. In the event of a large rain or runoff from the hillsides, the chance of a landslide is alarmingly high. The Miconia plants would be unable to sustain their position in such conditions and the runoffs from such a landslide would head straight for the ocean, covering delicate coral and endangering the aquatic species that make coral their homes.
A species of bird called the Japanese white-eye, another introduced species, has had a part in spreading this plant. When the Miconia plant flowers, it produces thousands of seeds, many of which are transported about the islands by the Japanese white-eye. Once these seeds find soil, they take root and a new area of growth is established. The Miconia plant flowers three times a year, making it a very prolific plant, detrimentally so in an area where it is unwanted.
Scientist Greg Asner, followed in the National Geographic “Strange Days on Planet Earth” documentary episode Invaders, has undertaken a project to create aerial maps of Miconia infestations using a variety of technology—helicopter remote sensing, satellite photos, simple walks through the vegetation to record plant locations, etc. With these maps, he hopes to be able to manage the infestations before they become too large, mainly through the work of volunteers.
The efforts made by Asner, and other involved researchers, seem to be the best course of action to take with such prevalent invaders. I was impressed by the variety of venues through which Asner collects the information to create his maps of Miconia infestations—he takes into account leaf size and plant height as well as simple longitudinal and latitudinal measurements. I think that if public interest remains concerned about the spread of Miconia, Asner’s method of management will continue to succeed. However, if public interest falls, it will be difficult to continue. The focus of the public is a powerful tool in any effort to stop the force of invasive species like the Miconia.