Plants which grow at the high elevations on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii (11,000 – 12,000 feet) and Haleakala on Maui (9,000 – 10,000 feet) are particularly adapted to little rainfall, harsh weather, a huge ultra-violet impact from the sun and a cindery substrate that holds little water.One of the most uniquely adapted plants in this alpine zone is the rare blossoming silversword plant, also knows as ‘ahinahina’. The leaves are thick and groove-shaped for catching rain. They are covered with a mat of tiny silver hairs that both reflect the heat of the sun and absorb whatever moisture there is from the passing mists.
Some ‘ahinahina’ live up to 50 years before flowering once and dying.
The Hawaiian word hinahina means “silver” or “gray.” At one time ‘ahinahina’ were so abundant on the volcanic mountain slopes that Hawaiian paniolos, ie.,cowboys, sang songs about the blinding glare from the reflection of the sun on their leaves.
The ‘ahinahina’ or silversword is found only on the islands of Maui and Hawai‘i.
Originally widespread across the lower elevations of these volcanic slopes, the plant was victim, like so many others, to the browsing and rooting of cattle, sheep and goats that were introduced to the islands in the late 18th century. Once common as low as 6,000 feet, the ‘ahinahina were pushed further up the mountain because of the increasing numbers of grazing animals. By 1920, surviving ‘ahinahina’ were seen only at higher elevations (10,000 -12,000 feet) on steep cliff faces or rocky shelves, where goats and sheep couldn’t go.