Kolomona (Senna gaudichaudii) – Plants without stories
I firmly believe State and Federal agencies will have few successes in protecting and preserving Hawai‘i’s unique flora and fauna without direct public involvement. This is why I spend so much time engaging everyday non-biologists in native plant recovery projects. Of course, convincing the general public that our endemic plants and animals are precious and should be saved is often a challenge. This task is made easier when the plant has an interesting story I can share. The story may be in the meaning of its Hawaiian name, what Hawaiians use the plant for, some unique morphological, physiological or ecological characteristic of the plant, or even a personal story of my relationship with the plant. Unfortunately, not all of Hawai‘i’s plants have stories (that I know). Kolomona is an example of a plant without a real story (but see *** below). It is likely ancient Hawaiians used the white and green flower for lei but Hawaiians used many native flowers in lei. Maybe, they had some significant use for the beanlike pods or wood that we don’t know about. There is nothing remarkable about kolomona biology or ecology; it’s a native dryland shrub. The plant is indigenous, so I cannot convincingly argue that if we don’t save kolomona here in Hawai‘i it will disappear from the planet. And, I will not even try to use the tired sell, “Perhaps, someday scientists will discover a chemical in kolomona that will cure cancer or diabetes …”
For native Hawaiian plants like kolomona and many others, I’m forced to use a more philosophical argument to, just maybe, convince a workday volunteer that she or he should spend a Saturday morning getting hot, sweaty, and dirty helping this plant survive another day. My “story” goes to the very heart of human inquiry, the BIG question, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” While most of us by the time we are adults have answered this question either via religion, philosophy, self-reflection or some other way, none of us know with absolute certainty the answer to our existence. Still, I will argue that each of us, all seven billion of us, believe we have a reason – a right to life. So, does that right to life only hold true for us? No, I don’t think so. If we can justify our own existence without knowing (for certain) our purpose, then, it is only logical, only fair, we extend that right to life to all living things on Earth, even an innocuous Hawaiian shrub without a story.
( *** Mathew Manakō Tanaka, a Hawaiian Language student, dismayed after reading I had no story for kolomona, decided to do some research of his own. Searching thorough a database of old Hawaiian newspapers, Mathew found several references to kolomona flowers being used in lei. He also found an interesting reference to post-contact Hawaiians making ‘ōpelu fishing nets from kolomona rather than the traditional ‘ūlei. Thanks Manakō.)