Grow Aloha: ʻŌhiʻa lehua

Grow Aloha Podcast: ʻŌhiʻa lehua

By Kapiʻolani Ching, Communications Coordinator

Featuring Lei Wann, Kim Rogers, and Julia Diegmann

ʻŌhiʻa are deeply rooted in Hawaiʻi’s ecosystems and culture. Known for their blossoms which can range from red, orange, to even yellow, these trees support various life forms including nectar-eating honeycreepers and epiphytic plants. The cultural significance of ʻōhiʻa is second to none, with many moʻolelo (stories), mele (songs), and oli (chants) celebrating ʻōhiʻa and all it represents.

Explore the stories and connections shared by a few individuals as they recall memories, experiences, and aloha for Hawaiʻi’s beloved ʻōhiʻa.

Read more

The backbone of our forests

“To me what’s amazing about ʻōhiʻa is that ʻōhiʻa believes and embraces ʻohana, and by that I mean biodiversity.” said Kim Rogers, “Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death Outreach Specialist with the Kauaʻi Invasive Species Committee. “You’ll see plants growing on ʻōhiʻa, you’ll see plants growing under ʻōhiʻa, lichen and mosses and fern grow on ʻōhiʻa.”

Lei Wann, director of Limahuli Garden & Preserve, shared similar thoughts about ʻōhiʻa and their role in a healthy forest system.

“When you look at ʻōhiʻa in a healthy forest, you don’t just see ʻōhiʻa. They become these ecosystems in and of themselves. Each tree has so many things living on it.”

“One of my favorite things to see is the afterlife of an ʻōhiʻa tree. Once it does fall—and hopefully it’s for the right reasons, natural reasons—but when they do fall in a healthy forest system, hundreds of plants take home on them, ferns, bryophytes, and all the critters that come along. They’re really the backbone to understanding our forest systems and keeping them in tact.”

The trunk of a fallen ʻōhiʻa tree serving as a nurse log for young ʻōhiʻa seedlings. Photo by Seana Walsh.

A breathtaking experience

Julia Diegmann, planner with the Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project, recalls one of her first experiences in an ʻōhiʻa forest.

“The first time I went up in the field was to go to Mohihi Field Camp. There’s a point on that hike where you enter this area and it’s all ʻōhiʻa forest. It’s a magical place, I really have no other way of describing it. There’s all these ʻōhiʻa trees and you’re surrounded by native plants, and then suddenly you start hearing the native forest birds calling. You’ll see a flash out of the corner of your eye and it’s an ʻanianiau flying by, or you hear an ʻiʻiwi from far away. I just couldn’t believe it because it was so breathtaking.”

Fiery lehua blossom

“When I was born, in true Hawaiian fashion, my parents and my tūtū had a kahu come and pray over me when I was born and search for my name,” said Lei. “In my case, when he prayed and he observed me as a baby he came to the conclusion that my name would be Leipuaahilehuaokalani which he translated as the fiery red lehua blossom rises to the heavens.”

“One of the interpretations that he gave my parents was that the name would also mean that I would become fiery with passion for the things I loved and cared for, and it’s definitely become true. My name has definitely settled with me throughout my life. I’ve chosen career paths or and hobbies that are centered around things Iʻm passionate about, and I’m particularly passionate about preserving and conserving. When it comes to the work that I’ve chosen as a career path—being the director here at Limahuli Garden—I’m definitely passionate about protecting and preserving this place, my home.”


ʻŌhiʻa and nā manu nahele

“We have eight remaining forest bird species and many that are extinct, and they all had relationships with ʻōhiʻa,” said Julia. “Some of them are pollinators of ʻōhiʻa like the ʻiʻiwi or the ʻapapane. Some of them are insect eaters like the ʻakikiki which is one of our most critically endangered forest birds on Kauaʻi. It eats the little insects that live in the bark of the ʻōhiʻa tree thus keeping the tree healthy. We have other birds like the puaiohi which is the small Kauaʻi thrush. The puaiohi is also critically endangered but it is a fruit eater, so it eats the fruit of different plants in the forest and then disperses the seeds and keeps native forests healthy and growing. So we have the pollinators, the seed eaters and the insect eaters. All of these forest birds need the native ʻōhiʻa forest to thrive.”

Preventing the spread of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death

Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD) is a fungal disease that attacks ʻōhiʻa and basically chokes its flow of water and nutrients up and down the tree. Once a tree gets infected, at this point in time there is no known cure. The only way it gets inside the tree is through a wound, and by wound I mean a branch has broken off, pigs and other feral ungulates can also wound ʻōhiʻa. Basically what theyʻre doing is they root around in the ground or rub up against the tree is theyʻre wounding ʻōhiʻa and so thatʻs the only way the fungus can get into the tree.”

“In order to help stop the spread of ROD, we are encouraging people to plant ʻōhiʻa. The more ʻōhiʻa we have the better. But the other things we can do are much more simple. Any time you are in or around ʻōhiʻa either while you are out hiking, birding, hunting, etc., we ask that you clean your footwear and all your gear of mud. The fungal pathogen moves around the island in mud, so if we get as much mud off our footwear and gear as possible, thatʻs the first step. The second step is then to spray with isopropyl rubbing alcohol (70%). This will actually kill the fungal pathogen, but it wonʻt penetrate a deep thick layer of mud on your footwear so you have to get as much mud off as possible.”

Critical to our watersheds

“Another way that ʻōhiʻa is super important to all of us is the fact that ʻōhiʻa is a critical component to our watershed,” added Kim. “The role that ʻōhiʻa plays in our watershed and ensuring that we survive day in and day out is another really important reason to educate ourselves about ʻōhiʻa and take all the steps that we possibly can take.”

“At one time ʻōhiʻa grew mauka to makai, top to bottom, and unfortunately we lost a lot of ʻōhiʻa at our lower elevations and so many people donʻt realize that ʻōhiʻa used to grow in their backyard. So grow ʻōhiʻa! Let’s bring ʻōhiʻa back to our backyards.”

Hope for a flourishing future

“I really just hope that ʻōhiʻa make it through the next generation with the threat of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa death in many of our forest systems,” said Lei. “I hope that ‘ohiʻa are still around in our kid’s generation and that there will be enough of it that they can really embrace and have relationships with it.”

“I’m sad to know that in our generation, in terms of cultural practices, we’ve refrained from using the plant in hula practices because of the threats of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death. And there starts this disconnection between the hula you might be dancing about, Laka, the person that is represented in hula, and the connection and embodiment of the plant. You lose that cultural relationship sometimes when you can’t do things like that.”

“My kāne’s side is from Hawaiʻi’s Island in Kalapana and down in Kalapana most of the older houses are made of ʻōhiʻa trees. The house my other half grew up in is about 100 years old and all of the house is made of ʻōhiʻa, even the floor boards. And thatʻs something that they got to experience—his grandparents and his dad got to experience growing up—but as that house dwindles and falls apart, it’s something my kids don’t get to really see. There were so many things associated with the practice of gathering ʻōhiʻa and using it for the kaupoko or the parts of the house, the beams, the main pouhana, that can all be traced to old traditional ways of housebuilding. It’s that connection with those things, there are so many cultural practices associated with ʻōhiʻa that I hope that it would be around for our kids to experience.”

Interviews were edited for clarity and length. Artwork by Carly Lake.

When we grow Hawaiian native plants and heritage crops, we grow aloha for ʻāina. Adopt one of these cherished plants every third Saturday at our free Grow Aloha plant giveaways at NTBG and partner locations!

Learn more

How to grow ʻōhiʻa

« All Stories

Add impact to your inbox

Join our mailing list for timely plant saving news and information