The ʻŌhiʻa tree, with its companion lehua blossom, is found only in Hawaiʻi, and is the most common of our Islands’ native trees. It is the keystone of the Hawaiʻi forest, critical to the ecology of our watersheds and sacred in Hawaiian culture. And now it is under attack, with new species of fungi killing trees on two islands.
By Lucy Sherriff
The native ʻōhiʻa is sacred to Hawaiians as a cultural touchstone and ecological underpinning for the state’s lush forests and abundant wildlife.
HONOLULU — A deadly fungus threatens one of Hawaii’s most beloved and important species, the ʻōhiʻa tree, and those believed responsible for introducing the threat to the tree in the first place are now being asked to help save it — tourists.
The native ʻōhiʻa is sacred to Hawaiians as a cultural touchstone and ecological underpinning for the state’s lush forests and abundant wildlife. The flowering evergreens that can tower to 85 feet comprise 80 percent of the state’s canopy, covering 1 million acres, and its nectar sustains birds and insects found nowhere else on Earth.
Now, public agencies and private citizens are trying to avoid biological and economic catastrophe by proclaiming war against a deadly fungal disease coined “rapid ʻōhiʻa death,” or ROD, that is swiftly destroying the trees. What’s more, invasive species like the miconia tree, native to North and South America and called the “green cancer” of Hawaii’s forests, are choking out the ʻōhiʻa.
The federal government has attempted to stop the fungus and tackle invasive species by imposing a quarantine on Hawaii Island and carrying out extensive tests to learn how the fungus spreads, but it has yet to find a solution. Hawaiian organizations, communities and scientists are now stepping in.
Gunstock Ranch, a horse riding stable and tourist destination on Oahu, is replanting native trees, although not the ʻōhi‘a yet. After conducting a survey on 80 acres of its land in 2016, and finding just two native species, owner Greg Smith established a Hawaiian “legacy forest,” where visitors can plant trees and monitor their growth online.
“Our hope is that as our guests plant and dedicate a tree they will form a new connection to the land and Hawaii and leave knowing that they made a difference,” Smith said.