5 Things You Need to Know About the ʻŌhiʻa Lehua Tree
Native to Hawaiʻi, the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree and flower has become deeply ingrained in the Islands’ culture, designs and stories.
Updated on April 23, 2021
One of Hawaiʻi’s most iconic tree, the ʻōhiʻa lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and is steeped in the Islands’ history. The flowers are gorgeous—coming in a variety of colors from red to yellow and even white—and have played muse for many local clothing and accessory designers. To celebrate ʻŌhiʻa Lehua Day—every year on April 25—we’ve compiled a few things you need to know about this tropical tree.
1. It’s a floral Swiss Army knife.
Referenced in mele (songs), oli (chants) and moʻolelo (stories), ʻōhiʻa trees were used for myriad purposes by ancient Hawaiians. Its wood was used as kapa cloth beaters, as boards for pounding poi, and for building structures and statues. Its flowers were used for medicinal purposes, like easing the pain of childbirth. The nectar of its flowers helped to feed Hawaiʻi’s menagerie of native birds, such as the ʻapapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper) and the now-extinct mamo (black Hawaiian honeycreeper), whose colorful feathers were often used for creating hula adornments.
2. It’s a flower born from legend.
The ʻōhiʻa lehua flower is mentioned in many Hawaiian moʻolelo; one of the more significant legends tells of its creation. According to the well-known Hawaiian tale, there once was a beautiful man named ʻŌhiʻa. He was so good-looking he attracted the gaze of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. Unfortunately for Pele, ʻŌhiʻa had his eyes set on a woman named Lehua, who also happened to fancy ʻŌhiʻa.
In a fit of rage, Pele transformed ʻŌhiʻa into an ugly, gnarled tree, and while Lehua tried to convince Pele to change him back, she refused. Lehua then asked the other gods to intervene, and in a compromise, they decided to transform Lehua into a beautiful flower that would adorn the ʻōhiʻa tree, so the lovers could stay together forever. Some say that if you pick the flower from an ʻōhiʻa tree, the two lovers cry, causing the sky to rain down their tears.
3. It comes in a rainbow of colors.
While ʻōhiʻa lehua flowers most commonly bloom scarlet red, they also blossom in salmon, garnet, yellow—and on very rare occasions—white. The ʻōhiʻa lehua come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all five species endemic to Hawaiʻi.
4. Where lava flows, these flowers grow.
Just because the ʻōhiʻa lehua flower looks dainty and delicate, the plant itself is incredibly durable and can grow in rugged, barren environments. Nowhere is that more apparent than in areas that have been covered by recent lava flows; the ʻōhiʻa tree tends to be one of the first plants to colonize these dry, obsidian lava rock habitats. This is in large part thanks to the tree’s superior capacity for extending its root system deep into lava rock crevices, and its capability to close its stomata, or breathing pores, which helps to block toxic volcanic gases that can be blown their way. In this way, ʻōhiʻa help start the forest and grow with it, with the potential to top out at 100 feet tall and nearly 1,000 years of age, the keystone species of Hawaiian rainforested mountaintops.
5. The plight of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD) is real.
More than a million ʻōhiʻa on Hawaiʻi Island have become infected by one of two fungal species, Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia, and died. The disease caused by these fungal species has been named Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death; trees on Maui, Hawaiʻi Island, Kauaʻi and Oʻahu have also been infected. It’s among the top concerns ʻōhiʻa, as there is currently no cure. All we can do now is follow these five guidelines on preventing the spread of ROD.
- Avoid injuring ʻōhiʻa. Open wounds on ʻōhiʻa are entry points for the microscopic fungal pathogens. The disease can also spread from tree to tree on machetes or other tools.
- Clean your hiking boots/gear/tools. Scrub off all dirt and spray boot soles and tools with 70% rubbing alcohol, and wash your clothes in hot water.
- The disease can remain alive and infectious in soil, so wash all dirt off vehicles after driving near ʻōhiʻa forests.
- Don’t transport ʻōhiʻa wood interisland and don’t move ʻōhiʻa wood or vegetation, especially from areas known to have ROD.
- Keep your eyes open. If you see ʻōhiʻa with its crown turning brown, seemingly overnight, take a picture and send it to that island’s Invasive Species Committee. Be ready to describe exactly where you saw the tree.
Special thanks to Kim Steutermann Rogers, a Kauaʻi-based freelance writer and ʻōhiʻa expert, for updating this story.