One word for "tree" in ‘ōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) is kumulāʻau. Broken into two words, one translation of this is plant (lāʻau) teacher (kumu). What can these trees teach us?
Red flowers of lehua blossom
Red blossoms of ʻŌhiʻa lehua (NPS Photo/J. Wei)

ʻŌhiʻa Lehua

‘Ōhi‘a lehua are the most abundant of Hawaiian native trees and perhaps the most iconic. Their bright red blossoms have come to symbolize native species. The trees are specially adapted to thrive in a volcanic landscape like the island of Hawaiʻi. They are one of the first plants to colonize new lava flows and possess stomata (pores in leaves that allow plants to breathe) that will close up in the presence of harmful gases, when many non-native trees will struggle or die back. In Native Hawaiian tradition, ʻōhiʻa are heavily associated with the volcanic deity Pele.

There are eight varieties of ʻōhiʻa, four of which can be found in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. While the most common color of their flowers is red, they can also be various shades of yellow and orange. The nectar in these flowers is an important source of food for some species of native birds like honeycreepers.

ʻŌhiʻa trees, particularly during times of stress, may send out aerial roots from their branches. These exposed roots help the tree gather moisture, especially in this misty rainforest environment. Look for these red masses hanging down from larger ʻōhiʻa.

In recent years, the very existence of these important trees has been threatened, as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death spreads and ravages forests.

Canopy of koa trees
A koa canopy (NPS Photo)


Sizable tracts of koa forest can be found in the Mauna Loa section of the park, where they have been largely safeguarded from grazing ungulates and logging. In some of these areas, the trees can approach 100 feet (30m) in height. The leaves of koa change uniquely and dramatically as the tree develops. Younger koa trees have divided leaves with a fringe-like appearance. As the tree ages, the leaves become large, sleek and sickle-shaped. As a keystone species in certain ecosystems, koa are critical to many endemic insects in particular. Historically, koa were especially prized for use in the wooden hulls of canoes. This dark wood is still highly valued today.


Two coconut palms in a coastal landscape
A grove of coconut palms near ʻĀpua Point (NPS Photo/A. LaValle)

Niu (Coconut Palm)

One could be forgiven for thinking that this tree, heavily intertwined with Hawaiʻi in the popular imagination, is native. In truth, the coconut palm was likely a "canoe plant" brought by some of the first migrants from Polynesia. Since its first introduction in the islands, the tree has thrived and can now be found in coastal areas of the park.

For Native Hawaiians, the tree was historically incredibly beneficial. Coconuts themselves provide food (milk, flesh, and oil). The shells could be carved into utensils, the husks provided fiber for cordage, and the leaves of the tree provided exemplary material for thatching and weaving.

ʻŌlapa tree and fruit
ʻŌlapa (NPS Photo/M. Szoenyi)


Because its tiny saplings on the forest floor are particularly appetizing to grazing ungulates such as feral pigs, ʻŌlapa is most often found in areas of forest that are fenced in or protected from these invasive animals. The tree's flowers develop into small dark blue or brown fruits, a food for species of Hawaiian honeycreepers like ʻōmaʻo and the now extinct ʻōʻō. Native Hawaiians traditionally use this fruit and the bark of the tree to create dark-colored dyes.

ʻŌlapa is also a term used for Hawaiian hula dancers, as their movements may resemble the quaking leaves of the ʻōlapa tree. Look for this characteristic fluttering when you encounter it, most easily found along the park's eastern boundary and near Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube).
Pilo plant with a red berry
Pilo (NPS Photo)


At least five species of this important rainforest plant are found in the national park. Pilo has long, 1-4 inch (3-10 cm) leaves that grow in opposite pairs. Female pilo flowers develop red or orange fruits. As with ʻōlapa, these fruits are a popular food for the ʻōmao.

Māmane tree with yellow flowers
Māmane (NPS Photo/J. Robinson)


This endemic tree is not the dominant species in any areas within the national park, but is critical elsewhere on the island of Hawaiʻi. Within the national park, look for them in the forests along Mauna Loa Road. The compound leaves of māmane are made up of many ovular leaflets. When blooming, it is adorned with distinctive bright yellow flowers that support native birds like the palila, ʻiʻiwi, and ʻapapane. It is also one of the most fire-resistant native trees.

The tree's hard wood had many uses for Native Hawaiians, including the handles of adze (a tool similar to an axe), runners for hōlua sleds, and farming tools.

ʻIliahi tree
ʻIliahi, or forest sandalwood (NPS Photo/J. Robinson)

ʻIliahi (Sandalwood)

Of the four species of sandalwood found throughout the Hawaiian islands, only one (Santalum paniculatum) is found in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Most of these once plentiful native trees in the Hawaiian islands were logged for their valuable, famously fragrant wood in the first part of the 19th century. For a brief time the prized wood was a chief export of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, but the boom was short-lived due to overexploitation. ʻIliahi can often be spotted in the forest by their yellow-ish, light green leaves, which stand out in contrast to the darker leaves of trees like ʻōhiʻa.

Leaves of the māmaki tree
Māmaki (NPS Photo)


This small tree, sometimes listed as a shrub, is a member of the nettle family. The plant and its Hawaiian brethren lost their nettles after they arrived in the islands, where there were no predators to defend from. Leaves may have short white or gray hairs and have highly visible veins. These leaves historically were dried and used in medicinal tea by Native Hawaiians, a practice that has seen a popular revival in recent years. The plant was also notable as a significant source of fiber for kapa cloth.

Māmaki is also a favored host of the pulelehua, also known as the Kamehameha butterfly, one of only two butterflies native to Hawaiʻi.

Last updated: February 18, 2021

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