New Native Plant, Cyanea heluensis, discovered on a Secluded Slope in Hawaii, is the Rarest Plant on Earth


Botany & Medicine

New Native Plant, Cyanea heluensis, discovered on a Secluded Slope in Hawaii, is the Rarest Plant on Earth

A flowering plant was found in Maui that is one of a kind, and it's the only known example of its species

By Mark Zuleger-Thyss



In a remote and shady spot on leeward Mauna Kahalawai, West Maui, two botanists Hank Oppenheimer and Jennifer Higashino discovered a new flowering plant called Cyanea heluensis. This unique endemic species features long, gently curved, white flowers and is so rare, there is only one plant of its species. It not only looks unusual - it is. Studies revealed it to be distinct from all other known species of the genus. This makes it the rarest plant on earth.

Found on one of the steepest, forested slopes of Helu that loom over Lahaina in West Maui, Cyanea heluensis was first discovered back in 2010, but it has only just been formally described. There are more than 1400 different plant species in Hawaii, most of which can only be found there.



The white flowers of C. heluensis resemble a native plant called the hāhā, but its finger-like, white curved flowers and unusual leaves are its distinguishing features. This sizeable tropical plant produces an orange fruit that local fruit-eating birds consume while dispersing the seeds. It begins to blossom from mid-summer through October, followed by immature, green fruit observed October to December, maturing in early January.

The botanists have been combing the area where the one mature plant was found, trying to find more seeds, but they have come up empty so far. Failing to locate any more individual plants, conservation of the only known plant became critically important.

Before an animal could eat the plant or another catastrophe could cause extinction, the lead botanist applied a special paste designed by a horticulturalist at Lyon Arboretum to produce new growth on the plant. It was successfully transported to Maui's Olinda Rare Plant Facility, where it is being propagated. Protections like these are urgently needed to keep rare, wild plants like C. heluensis alive.

"Conservation of our ecosystems and the species that depend on them is vital to mankind's survival, too," said botanist Steve Perlman from Plant Extinction Prevention Program.

When evaluated using the World Conservation Union criteria for endangerment, the plant quickly falls into the Critically Endangered (CR) category, which designates species facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

"Dozens of native plants like this one are now only kept alive in nurseries," says Matthew Keir, DLNR Botanist." Just one natural disaster, like a hurricane, hitting a nursery could cause the extinction of many rare plants," he said.

Since its discovery, Cyanea heluensis was added to the list of 250 species supervised by the University of Hawaii's Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP).


New Discoveries Increase Our Knowledge

The theory that humans are naturally drawn to nature and therefore happier around it is called "biophilia." Studies show that plant life positively impacts the mind and body, especially in urban environments. 

New discoveries increase our knowledge and information about the history of species. Such findings can affect their conservation in the future. Countless natural medicines we use today have origins in plant life. Here are four good reasons why new plant discoveries are essential.


  • They are essential to medicine
  • They can be new food sources
  • Plants can improve mental health
  • Plants are used in many products


Credit is given to botanists Hank Oppenheimer and Jennifer Higashino for discovering Cyanea heluensis above the town of Lahaina. A press release from Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources poetically stated the botanists found it "in the deep shade of a healthy ohia forest."



Botanist Steve Perlman of PEPP shared his feelings on the thrill of finding a new species like this:

"So, few people study and know flora and fauna well enough to recognize when a new species of plant, insect, or bird lies in front of them," said Perlman. "Saving the plants that have evolved all over the world is so important. The age of discovery is not over! These jewels of creation represent the wonderful diversity of the planet earth, and we will never see their like again."

With funding support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DLNR, the Plant Extinction Prevention Program works to prevent the extinction of native plants.

While we cannot know yet if Cyanea heluensis will "bear fruit" in the world of health, there is a race to find out how it can be of use.



© 2021 Mark Zuleger-Thyss, Garden of Healing. All rights reserved.