VOLCANO, HAWAII >> Along the edge of the Kilauea caldera lookout at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where many halau visit annually to pay respect to Pele during the Merrie Monarch Festival, an ohia lehua tree is in bloom.
The tree, about 12 feet tall, has been there for decades and remains untouched, as of now, by rapid ohia death, also known as Ceratocystis fimbriata wilt, which has afflicted an estimated 34,000 acres of forest on Hawaii island.
It serves as a symbol of hope at a time when the quickly spreading fungal disease has created a difficult situation for halau that have long cherished and gathered the ohia’s lehua blossoms and leaf buds as adornments and kinolau, or physical manifestations of various Hawaiian gods and goddesses.
1. Don’t move ohia wood, firewood or posts, especially from an area known to have rapid ohia death, or ROD. If you don’t know where the wood is from, don’t move it.
2. Don’t transport ohia from Hawaii island to neighbor islands. Comply with the new quarantine rule to help prevent ROD from spreading. Don’t move ohia plants, wood or other plant parts interisland without a permit.
3. Clean tools. Tools used for cutting ohia trees (especially infected ones) should be cleaned with 70 percent rubbing alcohol or 10 percent bleach.
4. Clean gear, including shoes and clothing. Decontaminate shoes by dipping soles in 10 percent bleach or 70 percent rubbing alcohol. Other gear can be sprayed. Wash clothing in hot water and detergent.
5. Wash vehicles, including the tires and undercarriage, with detergent, especially after traveling from an area with ROD or traveling off road.
The 53rd annual Merrie Monarch Festival competition opens today with Miss Aloha Hula, followed by group kahiko (ancient-style) hula on Friday and group auana (modern-style) hula on Saturday. And the cultural impact of the threat to the beloved ohia lehua can be felt at Hawaii’s largest annual hula competition.
Current state law prohibits the transport of ohia products or plant parts without a permit from Hawaii island, the only island currently Affected by the fungal disease. The state Department of Agriculture placed a quarantine on the tree in August due to fears that logs, leaves, flowers, seeds and cuttings could potentially spread the disease.
State officials are asking halau and lei makers to proceed with caution when using and transporting it this year. With no known cure, the disease has the potential to kill ohia trees statewide.
“You know, the ohia is such an integral part of hula,” said festival president Luana Kawelu, who sent information about the disease to participating halau in advance of the festival. “If anyone wants to protect the forest, it’s the hula practitioners. We all need to work together to take care so that the forest will become alive again.”
Each kumu will make his or her own decision about what flowers to use, according to Kawelu, with understanding from the panel of competition judges. Collection stations will be available nightly at the stadium for those who wish to leave their lei with trained volunteers who will gather them for a special ceremony on Sunday.
“We decided not use anything from the forest,” said kumu Lono Padilla of Kalihi- based Halau Hi‘iakainamakalehua. “We had original plans to use both lehua and palapalai ferns for our group and Miss Aloha Hula presentations, but we decided it would be better just not to risk going into the forest at all.”
Padilla and fellow kumu Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV, who has Hilo roots, usually gather forest materials on Hawaii island, as they did for last year’s competition. This year, they will be using feather lei for color, instead, along with ti leaf.
Still, they brought their dancers to Volcano to learn about all the different parts of the ohia lehua tree and its significance in hula and Hawaiian culture. Padilla was delighted to see trees full of vibrant, red blossoms.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “It is the pinnacle tree of the forest and therefore the pinnacle plant for the hula altar for hula in general and Hawaiian culture.”
Kumu hula Niuli‘i Heine of Na Pualei o Likolehua will be dressing her dancers in lei made from yellow ti and breadfruit leaves to represent Haumea, or the fertility goddess, in the kahiko group competition. She decided to forgo any lehua for her own adornments this year. She was uplifted by the sight of the blooming ohia lehua tree at Kilauea.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “You know, always through devastation you’re going to get rebirth, and that is so Haumea, rebirthing of our forests, rebirthing of everything. We people … have to malama our environment. It’s not about taking, it’s about giving.”
Kumu Ainsley Halemanu, who is judging this year’s competition, says a number of substitutes for lehua are available.
Palapalai, lauae and palaa ferns can be used for greenery, according to Halemanu, who is also a master lei maker. Other native plants include alahee, which has glossy, green leaves and small, white flower clusters. The ohelo has red berries and leaves with light to medium green hues.
The ohia lehua tree, or Metrosideros polymorpha, is present on all the main Hawaiian Islands; its buds range from crimson red to brilliant yellow. It can grow from sea level to altitudes of 8,000 feet or higher, and is usually the first plant to grow back after a new lava eruption.
Sam ‘Ohu Gon, senior scientist and cultural adviser to the Nature Conservancy, said Merrie Monarch is an ideal venue to raise awareness about the plight of the ohia lehua.
“Any cultural practitioner who cares about the plant and its central role in Hawaii culture would want to do anything they can to minimize their part in harming the plant, and be a positive force in the health of the ohia and ohia forest,” Gon said.
As a dominant tree in Hawaii, the ohia lehua is considered the kinolau, or physical manifestation of various gods and goddesses, including Ku, Laka and Hi‘iaka, according to Gon. Lei lehua are among the most exalted of lei. The wood of ohia lehua is used to make kalaau (dancing sticks) and the red, orange and yellow lehua blossoms serve as fiery symbols of Pele, goddess of volcanic fire.
Ecologically, the tree serves as home for native birds and tree snails that live and feed on it. And the canopy protects smaller trees and native shrubs, creating a watershed.
“It’s very serious,” said J.B. Friday, extension forester with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. “A moratorium on the transport, movement of plants and plant parts will help curb the spread. The message is, ‘Give your lei back to the island. Don’t bring it home.’”