It’s that time of the semester again! Namely, the time when Bruce Koebele, our resident propagation expert and service-learning coordinator, visits all of my classes and instructs all my students on planting and caring for a cutting of a native Hawaiian plant. The students will care for their cutting for most of the semester and then plant them at Piliokahe Beach in April. Across all my sections this semester, I have 60 students – a small army of propagators and habitat restorers – and I look forward to the impact a group this size will have on our two restoration sites.
I enjoy starting the students off early on the propagation. It gives them as much time as possible with their plants, and shows them right away that this class will be different – on the *second day* we’re eschewing the normal class structure (which I tell them I do all semester, but I’m never sure they believe me at first) and literally getting our hands dirty (or not literally, since we’re using potting media and not dirt). It also lets me unleash my dorky side, since I always love the little trays of baby cuttings waiting to be potted. They just look so hopeful, and ready for their new adventure.
Bruce walks the students through the different techniques of propagating plants, and the steps he has done prior to class. What are the pros and cons of propagating from cuttings versus from seeds? How do you collect seeds or cuttings? How do you ensure the plants you propagate are healthy and will survive in their new home? This semester, Bruce collected cuttings from native populations of each species growing on the eastern coast of O’ahu. This location will bring some genetic diversity to the population at Piliokahe (which is on the western coast), which will help the long-term survival of the population. Bruce also brings potting media that has been sterilized, to prevent infection in the delicate cuttings. And at this point, the cuttings have no roots, so students dip each cutting in a rooting hormone to promote root development as rapidly as possible. Since we’re scientists, we also collect data on the cuttings: students measure the height and leaf number for the cutting upon planting, and then track it throughout the semester. Investment in stem and leaf growth is one indication that the cuttings roots are developing sufficiently to support above-ground growth.
This semester, I’m propagating a plant (or two!) with each class. Left-to-right in the picture below are my pā’ū-o-Hi’iaka, nehe, ‘uhaloa, and pohuehue. So far, only the pohuehue is named – Charlie Brown (for what I hope are obvious reasons).
I strongly encourage the students to name their plants. Naming has a practical goal of helping the students remember to care for the plant… But also, naming the plant encourages the students to identify and interact with it as another living thing. Naming also has importance culturally – Bruce reminds the students that Hawaiian culture believes naming something instills it with your mana (power, or life force).
Currently, all of the plants are living on campus for a week or so, just to make sure they get off on the right foot (or root). Then the plants will journey home with the students until their planting at Piliokahe. Check back here for more details in late March when all our cuttings return for their final check-up!