Ōhi‘a lehua is found almost everywhere in native Hawaiian ecosystems and is the signature tree of the native forest. Its scientific name, Metrosideros polymorpha, means many forms and describes it well. Ōhi‘a grows on sun-scorched lava and in rain-soaked bogs and from just above sea level to the tree line at 8,500 feet. It can appear as a shrub or an emergent 100-foot tree, with flowers that range in color from blood red to brilliant yellow--and most everything in between.
Many Hawaiian traditions refer to the ‘ōhi‘a tree and the forests it forms as sacred to Pele, the volcano goddess, and to Laka, the goddess of hula. In Hawaiian mythology ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua were two young lovers. When Pele fell in love with the handsome ʻŌhiʻa, he rebuffed her advances, and in a fit of jealousy she transformed him into a tree. Lehua was devastated, and out of pity the other gods turned her into a flower and placed her upon the tree. It is said that when a lehua flower is plucked from an ʻōhiʻa tree, the sky will fill with rain representing the separated lovers' tears.
A Conserver of Water
‘Ōhi‘a trees are highly efficient at capturing and retaining water. The dense canopy provides an umbrella that intercepts rain, while a thick layered understory acts as a giant sponge, soaking up water and releasing it into streams and underground aquifers.
Ōhiʻa on Lava
Ōhiʻa grows easily on lava,and is usually the first plant to appear on new flows.
Buds and Blossoms
An ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossom is actually made up of many individual flowers—something that is readily apparent when you look at its numerous buds.
When ‘ōhi‘a lehua burst out in blossom, the ‘amakihi and other native birds come to feast upon its life-giving nectar.
Dwarf ‘ōhi‘a lehua bloom within Pēpē‘ōpae bog at the Conservancy’s Kamakou Preserve on Moloka‘i. From coast to summit and from desert to bog, ‘ōhi‘a has an amazing adaptive range.
Red is the most common color of the ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossom. There are different shades of red, including the dark blood red blossoms found in the lower elevations of Kamakou Preserve on Moloka‘i.
After red, yellow is the most common color of the ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossoms, pictured here at Kona Hema Preserve on Hawai‘i Island.
Orange is a less common color for ‘ōhi‘a lehua, seen here at Kanaele Bog, a Conservancy preserve on Kaua‘i.
Pink ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossoms, like the ones at Ka‘ū Preserve at the southern end of Hawai‘i Island, are a rare find.
Kamakou Preserve on Moloka‘i is one of the few places where you see can see ‘ōhi‘a lehua in a wide range of colors.
Ōhiʻa at Sunset
A lone ‘ōhi‘a silhouetted against the sunset at Kona Hema Preserve, Hawai'i Island.