Native Plants of Ocean View: ‘Ohi’a Lehua

'Ohi'a lehua in blossom.

‘Ohi’a lehua in blossom.

The ‘ohi’a lehua[i] (Metrosideros polymorpha) is the most common tree in Ocean View and indeed in the Hawaiian Islands. Like OV’s human residents, it is tolerant of almost all environments and thrives from sea level to over 8000 feet, in conditions both wet and dry, from boggy soils to basalt — in fact, just about anywhere. It is usually the first tree to colonize lava, where its roots and leaf-litter help to create and increase soil.

Lehua blossoms.

Lehua blossoms.

The ‘ohi’a lehua takes many forms, from low shrubs in bogs or directly on lava, to majestic specimens that can reach 82 feet tall. Flowers are usually bright to medium red but orange-red, salmon, pink, yellow, or orange forms are also found. The flowers appear in clusters on the terminal ends of the branches. Masses of stamens extend from the flower and give the blossoms their characteristic pom-pom shape.

‘Ohi’a lehua are the keystone species of the Big Island’s native forests, and Ka`u is the location of some of the largest and most pristine native forests in Hawai`i. It has been called the ultimate nurse tree for our native species.

Disease threat.

‘Ohi’a lehua are at risk from a fungus called ‘ohi’a wilt or rapid ‘ohi’a death fungus. It is spreading from Puna, where it already killed half the `ohi`a on 6,000 acres. The fungus clogs the tree’s vascular system. A single `ohi`a dies of thirst in weeks. A stand of `ohi`a dies in three years. In order to help preserve the trees, anyone entering infected forests is urged to clean vehicles, tires, boots and clothing before bringing them back to Ka`u.

An 'ohi'a lehua growing out of the 1986 lava flow, near Kalapana.

An ‘ohi’a lehua growing out of the 1986 lava flow, near Kalapana.

Uses

The reddish brown heartwood of the ‘ohi’a lehua is hard and fine-textured. It was traditionally used in building houses and heiaus, and to make household objects, weapons, tools, and statues. The flowers were used medicinally to treat the pain of childbirth; it is one of the few honey plants that is native to the Hawaiian Islands and in the summer it is not uncommon to hear an ‘ohi’a lehua buzzing with honey bees.

Mythology

ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were two young lovers. Madam Pele, the volcano goddess, fell in love with the handsome ʻŌhiʻa and approached him, but he turned her down. Pele’s temper is famously chancy. If she couldn’t have him, no one would, so she transformed ʻŌhiʻa into a tree. His lover Lehua was devastated. Out of pity the other gods turned her into a flower and placed her upon the ʻōhiʻa tree. It is said that when a lehua flower is plucked from an ʻōhiʻa tree, the sky will fill with rain  — the tears of the young lovers.


[i] It is a common misconception that the word ‘ōhi`a is used to refer to the tree and that the word lehua refers only to its flowers. The Hawaiian Dictionary (Pukui and Elbert 1986: 199) defines lehua with these words: “The flower of the ‘ōhi`a tree… also the tree itself [emphasis added].” Thus the Metrosideros polymorpha may be referred to correctly as a lehua tree, or as an ‘ōhi`a lehua, or simply an ‘ōhi`a

Photo credits:

“‘Ohi’a lehua in blossom” by © Marta Randall

“Lehua blossoms hawaii 01” by © CC BY-SA Thomas Tunsch, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Kalapana May 2009” by Brocken Inaglory -, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons