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Giant of the Forest 

“It’s a tree that has seen a lot of history and weathered a lot of changes..."

Pat Bily
Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i botanist

After a long hike through the native forest, botanist Pat Bily stopped and pointed up at an ancient ʻōhi‘a lehua tree lying deep within The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve.

“It’s the largest ʻōhi‘a I’ve encountered here on Maui,” he said, adding that a University of Hawai'i biologist estimated it could be 600 years old. “That means it already had been standing for nearly 400 years when Captain Cook arrived in the Islands. It’s a tree that has seen a lot of history and weathered a lot of changes to have survived this long.”

Late last year, Bily, a 23-year veteran with the Conservancy, led a group of middle-school students and parents from Maui’s upcountry’s Achievement Academy into Waikamoi. Their mission: to measure and photograph the ʻōhi‘a for nomination as an “exceptional tree.”

According to their calculations, the ancient ʻōhi‘a stands 80 feet tall with a canopy spread of 108 feet and a diameter, or girth, just shy of four feet.

An exceptional tree is one with historic or cultural value, or which by reason of age, rarity, location, size, aesthetic quality or endemic status has been designated by ordinance as worthy of preservation. Nomination of the ʻōhi‘a for exceptional status was recently confirmed by the Maui County Arborist Committee. It now awaits approval by the Maui County Council. If approved, it would add a layer of protection that would safeguard the tree from injury or destruction.

Kim Skog, chair of the Maui County Arborist Committee, said committee members are very confident in the 'ōhi‘a’s future listing. She added that the nomination should foster an “enhanced awareness of the treasures that Waikamoi and our other native forests hold.”

ʻŌhi‘a lehua is the signature tree of the Hawaiian forest. Its scientific name, Metrosideros polymorpha, means “many forms” and describes it well. ʻŌhi‘a grows on sun-scorched lava and in rain-soaked bogs, and from just above sea level to the tree line at 9,500 feet. It can appear as a shrub, or as in this case, an emergent 75 to 100-foot tree.

Bily had always marveled at the size of the ʻōhi‘a. But it was only after reading a research paper by Big Island biologist Dr. Patrick Hart, a professor at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, that he realized its possible age and importance.

Dr. Hart’s work on carbon dating the fallen trunks of ōhi‘a indicates that a tree girth of two and a half feet may be up to 700 years old. Upon observing this particular ōhi‘a, Dr. Hart said the tree could be 600 years old, which is “very, very old for a broadleaf tree.”

The Conservancy’s 5,230-acre Waikamoi Preserve was established in 1983 under a permanent conservation easement with landowner Haleakalā Ranch. The preserve is an important sanctuary for hundreds of native Hawaiian species, and a vital watershed for Maui. “This majestic tree thrives as an ‘elder’ of the forest,” said Scott Meidell, vice president of the Ranch, which this past year celebrated its 125th anniversary. “It reminds us of the critical importance of protecting the imperiled watersheds of Hawai’i.”

 

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