The Ohi’a Tree and the Lehua Blossom

When one thinks of Hawaii, it is quite natural for images of coconut trees swaying in the gentle trade winds of the islands to come to mind. And while the coconut tree is important, it is the Ohi’a that is one of the most beloved and culturally significant trees of Hawaii.

The Ohi’a or Metrosideros polymorpha, (the ʻōhiʻa lehua) is a species of flowering evergreen tree. It is a mainstay of the Hawaiian forest. It grows in both wet and dry climates from sea level to heights above 5,000 feet. It is one of the most abundant plants on the islands, not to mention one of the most beautiful. Its wood was used to create weapons, kapa cloth beaters, boards for pounding poi, enclosures, and statues. Its leaves and bark were used to make medicinal teas and its flowers and seeds fed native birds like the apapane and the now-extinct mamo.

The lehua blossoms, which are a vibrant red have always been important adornments in hula and other ceremonies. It is virtually impossible to hear traditional Hawaiian moolelo (stories), mele (songs) and oli (chants) without some mention of ohi’a or its lehua flowers.

This plant that grows into a tree and is the first to grow on new lava flows is sadly, under attack by the fungus, Ceratocystis fimbriata. This villain is also known as ROD (Rapid Ohi’a Death) because of the speed by which it infects and kills its host, within days to weeks.

In 2016, the Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long internationally acclaimed hula competition festival held on the big island of Hawaii for the first time in its more than half-a-century history, opted to forgo traditional lei and adornments from the ohi’a lehua tree. This was done in order to help stem the spread of ROD because the disease is ravaging populations of the tree on the Big Island. Efforts so far have been effective in curtailing the spread of this disease to other islands, but the operative words here are… so far.

The legend of the Ohia Lehua is a favorite among Hawaiian mythology. It goes that Ohi’a was a handsome, strapping young warrior. He was also a bit of a trickster and one heck of an athlete.

One night when Ohia was visiting Lehua’s village, he was talking story with her father by the bonfire. It was there that he saw Lehua for the first time and it was love at first sight. Lehua was a beauty. In fact, she was the most beautiful and the gentlest girl on the island. Ohio’s mouth dropped open, and he became so tongue-tied that he could not even finish the sentence he was speaking. Lehua’s father knew instantly that this young man was smitten with his daughter and had to even nudge his guest to remind him of his duties. Ohio simply could not take his eyes off of her. But the attraction was not merely one way. Lehua blushed, and her eyes were equally fixed on the striking young man whom her father was talking with.

When Lehua’s father offered to introduce his infatuated guest to his only daughter, Ohi’a for all of his athleticism, stumbled all over himself. Ohi’a proved himself to be an able suitor and the father quite like the boy… But for Lehua, she was more in love than she could have ever imagined.

The two wed, and one might think that they then lived happily ever after. Such, however, was not to be the case.

One day while Pele was strolling in the forest near Ohi’a’s house she spied the handsome young man working. She decided that she wanted him for herself. She approached and began making conversation with him. Ohi’a was polite to her, but he rejected all of her advances. Soon his young wife appeared bringing him his lunch. As Lehua approached Ohi’a’s face lit up, and he went to her side completely ignoring Pele. One look and
Pele knew this young man only had eyes for his wife.

This infuriated Pele, and in an angry rage, she dropped her human disguise, transforming into a raging column of fire. She then struck Ohi’a down and turned him into an ugly twisted tree. Lehua fell to her knees beside the tree that had once been her husband. Tears streamed down her face, and she begged Pele to turn him back into a man or turn her into a tree, as she could not bear to be separated from her beloved.

Pele ignored Lehua and took her leave. But when the gods saw what Pele had done to the innocent lovers, they became furious. As Lehua lay sobbing in despair, the gods reached down and transformed her into a beautiful red flower, which they placed upon the twisted Ohi’a tree, so that the young wife and her beloved husband would never more be apart.

From that day on… The Ohi’a tree has blossomed with the beautiful red Lehua flowers, and while the flowers remain on the tree, the weather stays sunny and fair. But whenever, a flower is plucked from the tree, heavy rain falls upon the land like tears, for Lehua still cannot bear to be separated from her beloved husband, Ohi’a.


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