One of Hawaiʻi’s most iconic flora, 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 the 3rd annual ʻŌhiʻa Lehua Day on April 25, we’ve compiled a few things you need to know about this tropical tree.
1. 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 bark was gathered to craft weapons; it was also used as kapa cloth beaters, as boards for pounding poi, and for enclosures and statues. Its leaves were grounded up and used for medicinal purposes, like easing the pain of childbirth. Its seeds 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 (stories); 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. They come 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, with 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.
5. The plight of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death (ROD)
Over 175,000 acres of ʻōhiʻa forests in Hawaiʻi have become infected by two deadly fungal species, Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia. The disease caused by these fungal species has been named Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death; trees on Maui, Hawaiʻi Island, Kauaʻi and Oʻahu have been infected. It’s among the top concerns for ʻōhiʻa trees, 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 disease spores. The disease can also spread from tree to tree on machetes or other tools.
- Don’t transport ʻōhiʻa interisland.
- Don’t move ʻōhiʻa wood or vegetation, especially from areas known to have ROD.
- 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.