Since the days of the ancients, the ohi’a plant and its vibrant red, orange and sometime yellow flower, the lehua, have played instrumental roles in Hawaiian culture and lifestyle. The plant can be on almost all of the major Hawaiian Island and can range in all shapes and sizes, from a small shrub to a tree as high as 40 to 60 feet high.
The ohi’a tree had many uses in ancient Hawaii. The ohi’a tree’s hard, durable wood in the days of old Hawaii was often used for such thing as: a club for pounding Hawaiian kapa cloth, poi boards, spears and a gunwale for canoes. The ancient Hawaiian used to marvel over the ohi’a tree’s durability as many of them were the last things standing when lava flows plowed through a given area. The bark of the ohi’a tree was also used for medicinal purposes.
As in the past as well as in today, the ohi’a’s lehua flower and its liko (leaves) have always been a part of Hawaiian hula and hula festivals. In recent years, Hawaii’s most famous and world renowned Merry Monarch hula festival, held on the Big Island of Hawaii each year, have been graced by lehua flowers and ohi’a leaves on stage as well as worn by hula dancers.
But things are different on the 2016 Merry Monarch hula festival on the Big Island. A new, relatively unknown disease has been killing large numbers of ohi’a trees in the Puna and Hilo districts of Big Island. The USDA has recently determine that the deaths of these trees is being linked to a fungus called Ceratocystis fimbriata which causes previously healthy looking ohi’a trees to die as quick as within a matter of weeks.
This disease, which is now being called Rapid Ohi’a Death, is so devastating that it has the potential to kill every ohi’a tree in the State of Hawaii. Fortunately, as of right now, the disease is limited to the Big Island and doesn’t yet appear to affect other types of trees or plants.
In the past, many students and teachers of hula halaus (schools) have gone into the ohi’a forest to gather lehua flowers and ohi’a leaves in preparation for the Merry Monarch festival. But, due to the potential of spreading Rapid Ohi’a Death, the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture has issued a quarantine restricting the movement of any ohi’a plant, plant parts and surrounding soil. Violators are subject to fines of up to $10,000 and five years in prison for repeated offenses.
The organizers of the Merry Monarch festival have been in contact with hula halaus to seek their urgent cooperation in this area to prevent this terrible disease from spreading. The concern is that gatherers might bring back infected lehua flowers and leaves as well as infected soil on the soles of their shoes. Any person with such infected soil on shoes or footwear could potentially spread Rapid Ohi’a Death to another Hawaiian island.
The bad news is that there is still no known cure for Rapid Ohi’a Death. But the State and other government researchers now believe they have a clue as to how the disease is primarily being spread. According to newspaper reports, burrowing beetles that colonize dead ohi’a trees are spreading infected ohi’a wood dust, which in turn, are being spread by the wind. This is in addition to any human or animal that somehow gets in contact with any part of the infected ohi’a tree or surrounding soil.
The State of Hawaii is now asking all residents and visitors to the Big Island to help prevent the spread of Rapid Ohi’a Death by following these 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 with State of Hawaii approved solution.
5. Clean your gear, clothing and shoes when hunting, hiking or gathering in the forests. Dip your soles in the State of Hawaii approved solution and wash clothes in hot water and detergent. Wash your vehicle with detergent after traveling off-road.
6. State of Hawaii approved solutions, known to kill almost all Rapid Ohi’a Death fungus, include a spray with 70% rubbing alcohol and a mixture of 10% bleach with 90% water. Lysol brand disinfectant should be used on tools used to cut ohi’a wood.
We are hopeful that a cure for Rapid Ohi’a Death can be found soon as so much of the past as well as the current culture of Hawaii is linked to the ohi’a tree and its lehua flower. Many government researchers and scientists are working hard on this problem, and 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.