(Editor's Note:This article was originally published on June 22, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Travel writer Isabella Bird Bishop describes coming upon this plant in 1873:
‘in a hollow of the mountain, not far from the ragged edge of the crater, then filled up with billows of cloud, we came upon what we were searching for; not, however, one or two, but thousands of silverswords, their cold, frosted silver gleam making the hill-side look like winter or moonlight. They exactly resemble the finest work in frosted silver, the curve of their globular mass of leaves is perfect; and one thinks of them rather as the base of an epergne for an imperial table, or as a prize at Ascot or Goodwood, than as anything organic'
Our travel book simply said ‘you'll know it when you see it' and we did. There isn't anything quite like it and since our day was bright and sunny the leaves of this amazing plant fairly sparkled, in a landscape that is otherwise almost completely barren. A plant that occurs in only one place on the planet..... and I was fortunate enough to see it! I had to find out more of course, and want to share here my new-found knowledge.
Known officially as Argyroxiphium sandwicense macrocephalum and thought to have evolved from the Tarweed, this plant lives in a tiny microclimate between 7000 and 10,023 ft on the slopes of the long-extinct volcano Haleakala on Maui. The Hawaiians called it ‘ahinahina' which means ‘grey-grey' but ‘grey' is far too dull a description for a plant that is so metallic-shiny. It owes its appearance to tiny silver hairs that cover the surface of each leaf, presumably to protect it from the very bright sun at this altitude as well as from the (sometimes freezing) cold.
A member of the Asteraceae family, it has succulent leaves at ground level arranged in a spherical shape, with a flower stem that eventually rises from the middle.
After blooming with a number of deep red sunflower-like blooms (which may not occur until the plant is about 50 years old and is almost two feet in diameter) it forms clusters of seeds, the plant dries up and dies. The seeds will again take root in the volcanic mass to produce small new plantlets.
The plant has been a protected species since 1922 and there is a serious fine for removing them from the mountain. It would be pretty silly anyway because it would be very difficult to replicate the growing conditions, although Isabella Bird mentioned in her writings that ‘they can be preserved by putting under a glass shade' (or dome, as was quite common in those days.) In the 1920s, grazing by mountain goats and unfortunately careless handling and removal by humans--sometimes as ‘proof' that they had actually reached the summit--made the plant nearly extinct. The volcano is now a part of the National Park Service, which strictly enforces the rules.
It has four other related species, occurring only in Hawaii, but none with such a striking appearance. The Mauna Kea Silversword on Hawaii's Big Island is thought to be extinct but crosses with related varieties have been planted on the slopes of this great volcano.
One of the great crafts of Hawaii is their beautiful quilts and of course the Maui Silversword is one of them.
Pictures are mine, taken in June 2008, with the exception of the silversword blooms which is from GoHawaii and the quilt picture which is from the Pacific Rim Quilt Company.