Haleakalā Silversword in bloom on the island of Maui.

The Story of Silverswords

The Arrival

Uncountable generations ago, a seed or seeds from a plant in the sunflower family landed in a favorable spot on the as-yet-unpeopled Hawaiian Islands. The soil was adequate, the sun and rain were as well, the seed may have been deposited by a bird and, therefore, have arrived with a little bit of its own fertilizer. Eons would go by before humans arrived in their canoes, eons that afforded these sunflower-family plants the time to do something truly marvelous and absolutely spectacular: in this all-new environment, they evolved. And wow, did they evolve into something breathtaking.

Visit our partner Haleakalā National Park on Maui these days and you will notice, growing in planters around parking lots above 7,000ft. in elevation, and also alongside trails deeper in the summit wilderness backcountry, a plant so unusual that park rangers are frequently asked if it is painted, or a fake. The Haleakalā silversword plant begins as a silvery, small, spiky ball growing out of the rockiest, driest excuse for soil. The silver spikes are furry, so that passing mists can be sifted out of the cold air and directed downward to the center of the ball, where the delicate roots cling to crumbly cinders. Being silver is one way to deflect the relentless sun at high altitude. This spiky silver ball can sit there, changing little, for years, even decades. At some point, an internal signal clicks, and it will send up the most ornate flower stalks you can imagine.

And so it begins, one great stalk rises from the center of the silver rosette of spikes. Steadily, hundreds and hundreds of small flowers, sunflower-like but often a soft purple bordering on pink, open in rows as the spike rises. This towering, sometimes six-foot-tall flower stalk will be the one time, the one chance, that the silversword reproduces, after which the entire plant dies. The seeds from the flowers are tiny, carried by the wind, and blow up against rocks or down into protective nooks in the landscape. With enough dew or rain, and some luck, those tiny light seeds will become a small silvery, spiky rosette.


Maui has the famous Haleakalā silversword. On Hawaiʻi Island, the two highest volcanic peaks are home to the Maunakea and Mauna Loa silverswords. All of them live in one of the most inhospitable zones in Hawaiʻi: high, dry, blasted by the sun, infrequently blessed with rain, and boomeranging, as deserts do, from hot days to frigid nights.

People did eventually arrive in the Hawaiian archipelago, and with them came pigs, goats, and cattle. Silverswords, with no evolutionary history of regular abuse and no ability to recover quickly from trampling and grazing, rapidly declined. To add insult to injury, there was a time when bringing an uprooted silversword plant back from your summit adventure was a fad. The plants were displayed as trophies and then discarded. 

Enter the national parks of Hawaiʻi

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes and Haleakalā national parks were created as one park in 1916, then divided from each other in 1961.

At Haleakalā, park managers undertook a heroic project; fencing of the park’s entire summit wilderness area, blocking hoofed and hungry ungulates. Park staff and volunteers, then and now, uprooted and cleared non-native plants that crowd the slow-growing silverswords out. Silverswords exist in a very narrow growing band across the face of the volcano, and recent climate change disruption of the moisture patterns that sustain them is cause for serious concern. The tiny seeds are collected and grown into mature plants in the park’s greenhouses, providing these rare beauties the best chance for survival.

At Hawaiʻi Volcanoes, the Mauna Loa silversword population is carefully watched within the boundaries of the park. In the early 1990s, feral goats, sheep, and cattle had nibbled and trampled the entire population of plants down to a few last survivors clinging to life in three different locations. The park fenced the most vulnerable plants and deploying botanists to cross-fertilize the wild plants and collect seeds. Back in park greenhouses, young silverswords are coaxed into life, then out-planted in areas most likely to support their growth. Climate change is being carefully watched, as botanists and managers may have to shift approaches in order to make sure they are giving this elegant, rare, extraordinary plant the best chance to reproduce on its own— and once again seed the flanks of the volcanoes with wild offspring standing shining in the high altitude sun, their flower stalks sending out fragrant invitations to the native bees.

Learn about the Mauna Loa silversword here: https://www.nps.gov/havo/learn/nature/endangered_ahinahina.htm#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20world's%20most,protect%20their%20sword%2Dlike%20leaves.

Learn about the Maunakea silversword here: https://www.hawaii.edu/news/2022/08/08/re-establishing-maunakea-silversword/

Learn about the Haleakalā silversword here: https://www.nps.gov/hale/learn/nature/silversword.htm

Silversword fan? Search on "silversword" here and stock up on goodies: https://shop.hawaiipacificparks.org/

A hiker's guide to trailside plants is here: https://shop.hawaiipacificparks.org/products/hike-gde-trl-plnts-hi



Hawaii Pacific Parks Association Location Map

Hawaiʻi Pacific Parks Association. P.O. Box 74 Hawaii National Park, 96718 HI