Corie Yanger grew up on Oahu, admiring “Hawaiian” plants such as plumeria, ginger and orchids. Little did she know that they, along with more than 90% of the plant species in the islands seen below the 3,000-foot elevation, were introduced.
Only in 2003, when Yanger enrolled in an introductory botany class as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, did she learn about native Hawaiian species.
“My professor organized field studies in Hawaii,” Yanger said. “I spent one summer on Maui conducting research in the backcountry of Haleakala National Park, and that set me on a path to working in native ecosystems, including ohia forests. I’ve lived among ohia ever since I moved back to Hawaii in 2004. My family lives in an ohia forest close to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. My husband and I feel lucky to be raising our children there, so they can learn what the forest gives to us and how we can give back to the forest.”
Yanger is the rapid ohia death educational specialist for Hawaii island, a position that’s affiliated with the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). Rapid ohia death was first identified in 2014 on Hawaii island. Since then, it has spread to Kauai, Maui and Oahu and has become a serious threat. Hundreds of thousands of ohia trees have died on Hawaii island alone.
Long ago, ohia blanketed local landscapes. Polynesian settlers used it to make tools, carve temple images and build canoes and structures. It is still regarded as a kino lau, a physical manifestation of several Hawaiian deities, including Ku, god of war; Kane, god of water; Laka, goddess of hula; and Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes. Ohia is often mentioned in ancient chants, songs and stories.
Interestingly, it is the first flowering plant to grow on new lava. Its tiny seeds fall into cracks, where they’re nourished by accumulated water. The seedlings’ roots break up the rock, creating soil, and their fallen leaves decompose, providing nutrients for other plants to get established in the ground. The ohia and the lichens and mosses that grow on its trunk and branches capture mist and rainwater, which eventually reach aquifers.
CTAHR and the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife office in Hilo launched the ‘Ohi‘a Love Fest in August 2017 to raise awareness about the tree and the danger it faces from rapid ohia death.
“The festival explores the important role ohia plays in our culture, ecosystems, economy and sense of place,” said Yanger, the event’s main organizer. “We hope that as people celebrate ohia, they will be inspired to help protect it from ROD.”
One of this year’s highlights is the 3D ‘Ohi‘a Forest Experience created by the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Labs. Its researchers have been collecting rapid ohia death data for the last few years, and they were recently awarded $70,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue studying ways to improve detection and management of the disease.
Wearing 3D glasses, you’ll be able to see drone imagery the lab has taken of infected sites on Hawaii island. Staff will be on hand to provide commentary and answer questions.
In addition, there will be screenings of the 28-minute, Emmy Award-winning documentary “Saving ‘Ohi‘a — Hawaii’s Sacred Tree,” which explains ohia’s significance, the impact of the disease and the efforts being made to stop its spread. If you’re not able to attend the festival, you can watch the video online at savingohia.com.
Also planned are hula and live music; educational talks; games, crafts, face painting and scavenger hunts for kids; and decontamination demonstrations that explain how to properly clean your shoes, gear and vehicles to prevent the spread of rapid ohia death. You can take home a little pot filled with ohia seeds to start planting your own forest.
“When I talk about ohia, I like to point out a root word, ohi, meaning ‘to gather,’” Yanger said. “Ohia is a water gatherer, and our festival shows how it also gathers people together. It invites them to come and learn about ohia — what it was before ROD and what it is happening to it now because of ROD. The great thing is they can contribute; they can help shape the future story of ohia.”