2 August 2022

Back to the Plants

A career journalist becomes an Ag scientist

Back to the Plants

by John Steinhorst

Constantly digging in the dirt as a kid, I’m not sure when I first became passionate about plants. It just seemed natural from the ground up, surely budding in my heart. My first jobs shed light into the puzzling plant kingdom, in the form of lawn care and landscaping work in the Sunshine State, along the Space Coast of Central Florida, a barrier island framed by river and ocean. I found solace in the natural world outdoors, in all plants fruiting, flowering, and growing, developing an affinity for palms of dreamy tropical isles.

While the seeds slowly germinated, I paradoxically followed another root. I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English with a focus on Creative Writing; and for the next two decades worked as a magazine editor, writer, and photographer. My fondness for outdoors and surfing landed me first at a surfing magazine and eventually in Hawaiʻi (thanks also to my fondness for one enchanting wahine, now my wife).

My successful 20-year career in publishing ended as a newspaper reporter on Kaua’i, the Garden Island. But with decay comes growth. Print publications were wilting and making way for instant online content; so the season had come to grow my profession in another direction.

Simultaneously, my love of plants stemmed further, like the fertile green landscapes of the Hawaiian Islands. Volunteering at Limahuli’s north shore garden later turned into employment as tour guide at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG). This fed my sprouting knowledge of Hawaii’s native plants and further instilled the importance of nature conservation. Then a trip to Hawaiʻi Island revealed more majestic plants, especially one whose fragrant flower opens only at night, alongside its contrasting smelly orange fruit. The contradiction and mystery of this plant, the native Hawaiian caper, or Maiapilo, captivated my interest. I wanted to learn more about this endemic species named Capparis sandwichiana.

Then the planet sneezed! Getting laid off during a pandemic doesn’t have to be the worst thing; during quarantine, I expanded my home garden into a small food forest farmstead. In fact, the global glitch got me thinking about new norms, such as online academia. After an enlightening stint as a conservation technician in the folding cliffs of the Garden Island, I embarked on pursuing my new life’s dream to earn a Master’s of Science degree. A science and conservation internship at NTBG Seed Bank offered by Maxwell Hanrahan Foundation fertilized my pursuit with research support, as well as a nurturing scholarship awarded from the Garden Club of America.

I wanted to better understand and use Hawaiʻi’s unique native plants. Now I’m a graduate student in CTAHR’s Dept. of Tropical Plant & Soil Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. My future plans are to develop research and documentation for the Hawaiian caper in horticulture and landscape practices. My research will encourage its propagation, planting in gardens, and incorporation into managed landscapes. I am conducting needed research on the native caper’s general ecology, seed characteristics, propagation, growing requirements, and landscape applications to gain knowledge and experience with this endemic plant threatened by loss of habitat. A better understanding of seed storage and germination for the vulnerable Maiapilo will provide conservation managers and growers with valuable information to increase production efficiency for this enigmatic and underutilized drought-tolerant species.

The endemic species is worthy of recognition, as it possesses incredible ornamental attributes with its showy flowers and oblong fruits, in addition to its ecological value for attracting native pollinators. It also has tremendous cultural and medicinal value, being used by Hawaiians to mend broken bones and to treat boils. Medicinal and cultural uses add further value to my scientific research on seed dormancy and germination of this native caper.

All the skills and experience I acquired as an editor will surely help my academic and professional pursuits go to fruit. From journalist to scientist, I am getting back to my roots by nourishing this lifelong passion for plants.

Photos courtesy of Bob Nishek.

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