Friday, November 27, 2015         


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Growing surfboards could be a blessing to the land

By Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst


How would you like to grow yourself a surfboard? What kind of gardening is this?

Surfboards today result from a toxic manufacturing process involving epoxy, fiberglass and resin. They are produced in Hawaii and in huge quantities in China and elsewhere. It would be great if we "grew" them here.

So let's have surfboard farm tours instead. Let's grow surfboard trees on marginal lands. The diversity of trees would mean less use of toxic pesticides or plant pandemics like the Erythrina gall wasp, which wiped out many kinds of introduced Erythrina trees and severely damaged and killed some of our native Erythrina sandwicensis or wiliwili.

What did Hawaiians, the inventors of surfing, make their boards out of? We know the alii had koa boards. Some Hawaiians made surfboards of redwood when an occasional huge log washed up on isle shores from the West Coast.

During the mid-1900s, balsa was used to make lightweight surfboards. Some of them are still in use. My dad hand-planed balsa surfboards for himself, my mom and a few of their favorite beach boy buddies who shared waves with them out at Queen's in Waikiki.

We can grow balsa, a tropical American tree, here in Hawaii. Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden has them in the tropical American section, down by the flood control lake, Waimaluhia.

And have you heard of surfboards made of ohe?

My mom and I ran into author and retired deputy fire chief John Clark out at Diamond Head early one morning. He was about to catch some early waves and asked if I'd heard of rare dryland forest trees called ohe, not ohe that we know as bamboo. Clark, who has a degree in Hawaiian studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is writing a new book about traditional Hawaiian surfing and has been researching the woods from which the old boards were made. (His book is due to be published by University of Hawaii Press in early 2011.)

Clark discovered that wiliwili, which has soft, lightweight wood and grows near the coast, was used for surfboards, as were the dryland ohe (Reynoldsia and Tetraplasandra). They, like native wiliwili, have fat, water-storing trunks to get them through droughts. The wood is easy to carve with hand tools, including traditional Hawaiian tools. They were perfect for making surfboards.

When I worked at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, we had a favorite gardener named Makana. He was a big Hawaiian man, originally from Niihau.

"Why did you leave Niihau, Makana?" I asked him.

"Heidi," he said, "I left because I love to surf, and I also like to drink a little beer." The second of these activities was frowned upon in Niihau, so he left for the freer lifestyle on Kauai.

He told me he made himself a surfboard out of a big old log of wiliwili wood. Other Niihau and Kauai people told me that Makana was a total ripper.

When I saw all the wiliwili trees devastated and killed by the gall wasp, I thought we should use some of that wood to make some surfboards. But people were in a rush to cut them down and dump the wood. Auwe! Poho! What a waste!

Next time let's make some surfboards and grow some more Hawaiian trees.

Heidi Leianuenue Bornhorst is a Hawaiian horticulturist, arborist, food gardener and sustainable landscape designer. E-mail her at

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