Image From The Nature Conservancy Ohia Tree


Traditionally Hawaiians refer to the Ohi’a tree sacred to Laka the Goddess of Hula and to Pele, the Goddess of the volcano. There is a legend that goes like this. One day Pele met a handsome warrior name Ohi’a. Pele was so smitten with Ohi’a that she had asked him to marry her. Ohi’a however, had already pledged his love to the beautiful Lehua. Pele was so furious and jealous that Ohi’a turned down her marriage proposal that she turned Ohi’a into a gnarly, twisted tree. Lehua was so heartbroken, she had asked the Gods to help and turn Ohi’a back to his original form. The Gods were too frightened to go against Pele, so they compromised. Instead, they turned Lehua into a beautiful flower on the Ohi’a tree. The lovers are now forever joined together. It is said that if you pick a Lehua blossom from its tree, it will begin to rain. A sign that the two lovers are again separated.

The Culture Significance of The Ohi’a Lehua

Ohia is important because it’s so effective at replenishing the watershed, and birds feed off of the Ohia tree nectar. Thousands of Ohia trees have been hit with a disease on the Big Island of Hawaii.  This is due to the “Rapid Ohi’a Death” that has been killing them at an alarming rate. This has brought about restrictions on taking ohia lehua plants from the island.

The I'iwi bird drinks the nectar of the Ohi'a Lehua bloosoms.

The I’iwi bird drinks the nectar of the Ohi’a tree blossoms. Photo By The Nature Conservancy

Lei making, lei giving, and wearing lei have profound personal, spiritual, and cultural importance. Many legends and stories are told about this beautiful Ohi’a lehua. Ordinarily, halau gathers their flowers from the woods and return them after the competition. For the past several years, however, halaus participating in the Merrie Monarch Festivals has opted to forgo the usage of the lehua flowers for adornments. Concerned groups and individuals have facilitated a Puaenaena Ceremony. Gathering any ohia parts that were taken to Merrie Monarch, burning them and returning them to the woods.

Amakihi on ohi'a lehua

Amakihi on Ohi’a lehua Photo By The Nature Conservancy

It’s a Bleak Future Ahead

Forest Health Coordinator Robert Hauff said quote “Worst case scenario is that it spreads statewide and it decimates all of our ohia tree forests. It is a pretty bleak picture.” A world expert in similar diseases is expected to visit the islands to advise Hawaii in controlling the outbreak. Primarily the areas that disease has been found is in Puna, Kona, and Kau. Though the disease has not been seen anywhere else in the world.

Abundant Lehua Trees

Abundant Ohi’a Trees Photo By The Nature Conservancy


Pele isn’t the only god associated with ohia lehua. In different stories, the plant is a kinolau, or physical appearance, of a few Hawaiian divine beings and goddesses including Ku, Hiiaka, Kane, and Kapo. To awaken the Gods, hula dancers customarily wear lehua in lei headbands, around wrists and anklets. Ohia branches are utilized to make customary kalaau or dancing sticks. Branches bearing both woody parts and flower symbolize the male and female components that decorate the kuahu (hula altars) in hula class.

In spite of the fact that Rapid Ohia Death is quickly spreading sickness represents an up and coming danger to this critical tree statewide. Over 34,000 sections of land have been killed. The loss of the tree would be disastrous to local forests and Hawaiian Culture.

Rapid Ohia Death Threatens Hawaii’s Native Trees, Ohi’a Tree

 Published on Apr 29, 2016, by San Diego Zoo
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