We all know by now that coffee grows in Hawaii. However it is not native to the Hawaiian islands. After reading an article in the New York Times about a man in Oahu who is restoring a piece of land back to its native state (before Captain Cook arrived) by planting native trees and plants and destroying invasive ones, I got inspired to do some research. According to Wikipedia, “a native plant is a term to describe plants endemic or naturalized to a given area in geologic time. This includes plants that have developed, occur naturally, or existed for many years in an area. In the US a plant is often deemed native if it was present before colonization.”
Even the state tree, the Kukui, is not a native tree. It is a polynesian import. Trees like the Kukui and Albizia squeeze out the declining native species such as the Koa, Ohia, and Lama trees. If you have been to Hawaii or live here then you certainly hear about Koa trees quite a bit. But do you really know what it is? I thought I’d dig a little deeper and do some investigation on this native Hawaiian tree.
The koa tree, or Acacia koa is the largest native tree in the Hawaiian islands reaching the heights of about 115 feet. It actually does not grow naturally anywhere else in the world! The declining number of koa forests actually began about 150 years ago with the introduction of cattle ranches to the islands. Because the Acacia koa is a member of the legume or bean family, Fabaceae, the seeds of the trees were like candy to the cattle. This prevented reforestation from happening. Commercially, koa wood is one of the most expensive woods in the world, and almost all of the present day commercial harvesting is done on the Big Island of Hawaii. Currently, logging of the trees is prohibited on state owned land. So the koa wood must be harvested from a fallen tree or a one that is about to fall.
In early Hawaii, the koa tree was the most valuable tree. It was used for building houses, tools, paddles, ceremonial poles, short surfboards, and much more. However the most important use of koa wood for the early Hawaiians was making canoes (wa’a). Speaking from experience, paddling a koa canoe is truly an amazing experience. You can feel the mana or the spirit of the tree and of those that built it by just sitting in one. I highly recommend it.