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About ʻŌhiʻa

  • ʻŌhiʻa are the most abundant native tree species throughout the state of Hawaiʻi and hold significant biological, cultural and economic value. (Photo by JB Friday)

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  • One might assume that a native tree is exclusively associated with land, but in Hawaiʻi some locals know ʻōhiʻa for the red color it can cast on ocean water (when the red pistils fall from aging blossoms on trees). (Photo by JB Friday) 

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  • Many people are familiar with the red blossoms of ʻōhiʻa, but few are fortunate enough to see the suite of colors -ranging from yellow to orange to red and everything in between. (Photo by JB Friday)

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 ʻŌhiʻa is a Hawaiian name for several kinds of trees, but the most prominent of these is ʻōhiʻa lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha), perhaps one of the most important native Hawaiian trees. ʻŌhiʻa lehua is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands -it grows naturally in this archipelago alone. ʻŌhiʻa-dominated forests cover close to one million acres of land across the State of Hawaiʻi. ʻŌhiʻa can be found at elevations from sea level to greater than 9000 ft. They are often among the first plants to colonize fresh lava substrate, and are therefore instrumental in the process of soil development and ecological succession. 

ʻŌhiʻa trees make up the largest portion of the canopy in native wet forests. They provide shelter and food for numerous native birds, including endemic Hawaiian nectar-feeding honeycreepers such as the ʻapapane and ʻiʻiwi, as well as innumerable insects, snails and other invertebrates. Their trunks act as nurse logs, supplying nutrients, water and protection for native seedlings and epiphytes. Their canopies capture mists and rainwater that replenish our island aquifers, which provide drinking and irrigation water for Hawaiʻi’s communities and agricultural sector.

ʻŌhiʻa are woven deeply into Hawaiian culture through symbology in moʻolelo (stories), mele (songs) and ʻoli (chants). ʻŌhiʻa serve as the sacred kinolau (physical manifestations) of multiple Hawaiian deities such as Kū (god of war and manifestations), Laka (goddess of hula), Pele (goddess of the volcano), Hiʻiaka (sister of Pele), and Kāne (god of water). ʻŌhiʻa wood was used for various ceremonial structures on heiau (temples). The red of lehua (ʻōhiʻa blossoms) was seen as a reflection of the bloodshed of war, and "lehua" was a term used for the first warrior to fall in battle. The word “lehua” still is used to describe someone who is an expert in his or her field. (Sam ʻOhu Gon III, The Nature Conservancy 2016)

ʻŌhiʻa are also highly valued in commerce. Today, ʻōhiʻa wood is used for flooring, house posts, fencing posts, decoration, framing of traditional hale, and firewood. ʻŌhiʻa seedlings are also among the most sought-after plants for native landscaping. Thus, ecologically and culturally, ʻōhiʻa stands as one of the most vitally important trees of Hawaiian forests.