ʻŌhiʻa lehua is the most common native tree in the Hawaiian Islands. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, temperature, and rainfall. As a pioneer plant, ʻōhiʻa are the first trees to sprout from new lava. As such, it is associated with the volcanic deity Pele. Due to the wide range of habitat for ʻōhiʻa, it is also the most variable of all native tree species. Which makes sense given that its species name is polymorpha meaning “many forms.” ʻŌhiʻa can be found in small shrub to large tree forms, display various leaf colors, shapes, textures, and exhibit incredible floral colors like red/pink, yellow, orange, and even cream!
A moʻolelo says that anyone who picks a lehua blossom will cause rain, due to the sad parting of lovers. The story personifies an infatuated warrior as an ʻōhiʻa tree and his beautiful lover as the lehua flower. One day, Pele came across ʻŌhiʻa and fell for him. Unfortunately, ʻŌhiʻa was loyal to Lehua and refused her advance. An enraged Pele transformed ʻŌhiʻa into a tree. So, after pleading with the gods, a mournful Lehua became the alluring adornments of the ʻōhiʻa forever more. This is just one of many mentions of ʻōhiʻa across Hawaiian moʻolelo, mele, ʻoli, and hula.
The plant is used most commonly for lei and hoʻokupu, but it’s also seen in woodworking and Hawaiian medicine. It’s a great ‘honey plant’ as it attracts many pollinators due to its abundance of nectar. ʻŌhiʻa nectar honey is silky and prized around the State. ʻŌhiʻa wood is one of the hardest woods in Hawaiʻi, but it is not widely used on a commercial level. Historically, it was seen in house building, canoe-making, and weaponry. However currently, it is essential not to move untreated ʻōhiʻa wood around the State to prevent the spread of rapid ʻōhiʻa death (Ceratocystis spp.).
- Cultural significance
- Cut flower
- Lei flower
- No dangers