The ohi’a and its vibrant flower, the lehua, have played instrumental roles in Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. One can find the plant on almost all of the major Hawaiian Islands. It can range in all shapes and sizes, from a small shrub to a tree as high as 40 to 60 feet high. But now, a new disease, which scientists call Rapid Ohia Death, is threatening it.
The Importance of Ohi’a Trees
The ohi’a tree had many uses in ancient Hawaii. The ohi’a tree’s hard, durable wood in the days of old Hawaii had many uses. It could be used a make clubs for pounding kapa cloth, poi boards, spears and gunwale for canoes. The ancient Hawaiians marveled over the ohi’a tree’s durability. Many of them were the last things standing when lava plowed through a given area. Hawaiians also used the bark of the ohi’a tree for medicinal purposes.
The ohi’a’s lehua flower and its leaves have always been a part of hula festivals. In recent years, Hawaii’s annual Merry Monarch hula festival on the Big Island showcase lehua flowers and ohi’a leaves. Here, one can see them on stage as well as on hula dancers.
The Dangers of Rapid Ohia Death
But things were different at the 2016 Merry Monarch hula festival. Rapid Ohia Death has been killing large numbers of ohi’a trees in the Puna and Hilo districts of the Big Island. The USDA has determined that a fungus is causing ohi’a trees to die within a matter of weeks.
More troubling, Rapid Ohi’a Death has the potential to kill every ohi’a tree in the State. Fortunately, as of right now, the disease is limited to the Big Island. It doesn’t yet appear to affect other types of trees or plants.
In the past, hula dancers and teachers have gone into the forests to gather lehua flowers and ohi’a leaves. They did this as part of their preparations for the Merry Monarch festival. To minimize risks, the State Department of Agriculture has issued restrictions on moving ohi’a plants, plant parts and surrounding soil. Violators can face fines of up to $10,000 and five years in prison.
The organizers of the Merry Monarch festival have been in contact with hula halaus. They need their cooperation to prevent this disease from spreading. The concern is that gatherers might bring back infected flowers, leaves as well as infected soil on their shoes. Any person with infected soil on footwear could potentially spread Rapid Ohia Death to another island.
The bad news is that there is still no known cure for Rapid Ohia Death. But researchers now have a clue as to how the disease spreads. According to reports, burrowing beetles that colonize dead ohi’a trees are spreading infected ohi’a wood dust. The wind then further spreads the dust. This is in addition to any human or animal that somehow gets in contact with the infected ohi’a tree or soil.
State of Hawaii Guidelines
The State of Hawaii is asking all residents and visitors to the Big Island for help in preventing the spread of this disease. Here are the official guidelines:
1. Don’t move any type of ohi’a wood.
2. Comply with the quarantine rules and do not move any type of ohi’a materials to another island without a permit.
3. Clean any tools used in the cutting of ohi’a.
5. Clean your gear, clothing and shoes when hunting, hiking or gathering in the forests. Dip your soles in solution and wash clothes in hot water and detergent. Wash your vehicle with detergent after traveling off-road.
6. State of Hawaii recommends a cleaning solution of 70% rubbing alcohol with a mixture of 10% bleach with 90% water. Use Lysol brand disinfectant on tools that cut ohi’a wood.
We are hopeful that scientists can find a cure for Rapid Ohia Death. This is because so much of Hawaii’s culture is linked to the ohi’a tree and its lehua flower. Many researchers and scientists are working hard on this problem. When they do find a cure, we will let you know. We hope to give good news on this latest challenge to Hawaii’s fragile environment soon.