A Koki’o tree, one of the rarest plants in the world, shown at the Waimea Valley on O’ahu island, Hawaii.

Few species have danced at the edge of extinction as long as the Hawaiian koki’o tree, defying fate for over a century now with remarkable strokes of good fortune, followed always by crushing defeats.

The story begins in the 1860s when this tree was first described in the written record. Even then only three specimens could be found, all together on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i. It’s thought the expansion of Polynesian agriculture and livestock 1,000 years prior had slowly eaten away at the koki’o’s habitat, leaving only this small trio in all the world.

But when botanists surveyed the site some years later, hoping to learn more about this humble plant, they could find none of the three trees promised to them. It was decided the species had gone extinct, slipping quietly into oblivion while the eyes of science were elsewhere. This, of course, wasn’t the case.

In the early 1900s, one of the old trees was finally found, though in poor health. This sickly survivor finally died and the species, now surely gone, was declared extinct for a second time in 1918. A part of this old tree still lived, however, its essence contained in a single seed which quietly sprouted nearly. It was discovered in 1930 and moved to a plot of land elsewhere on Moloka’i island where it could be better cared for.

It prospered here, producing some 130 seedlings in the surrounding soil. The Koki’o was suddenly more populous than it had been in decades, perhaps centuries, but tragedy struck a devastating blow to this little plantation. This surviving linage of koki’o was not a strong one, it turned out, and all 130 young trees died, followed by their parent tree in 1950. Again, extinction seemed assured.

It wasn’t for another 20 years, in 1970, that a surviving adult was found on the same land where its 130 deceased siblings once stood. Its seed had been dormant, apparently, and grew to adulthood before anyone noticed. But, staying true to the fantastically bad luck of its species, this lone survivor was destroyed in a fire in 1978. And here is where the story would have ended, were if not for just one more miracle.

Amazingly, from the charred remains of the world’s last koki’o, a single, living branch was recovered. By some botanical magic it was successfully grafted onto another tree, this one on the nearby island of O’ahu, and here it grew, slowly yielding enough branch for additional grafts to be taken and scattered across the Hawaiian archipelago.

For a dreadfully long time it seemed these lingering grafts were sterile, stubbornly refusing to give seeds, but finally a few were produced and have since grown, reluctantly, into a captive bred population.

The species is still too weak to survive in the wild, where it hasn’t grown freely since the fire of 1978, but work continues to strengthen the few who remain. Today it’s considered one of the rarest plants on Earth and will likely stay that way for sometime, but if we’ve learned anything about the koki’o over the last century, it’s that persistence is among its many virtues.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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