Hawaii is home to more than 200 endemic trees, meaning they are native only to the islands and can’t be found anywhere else in the world. In addition to bringing beauty, trees provide several key benefits. They help clean the air of harmful pollutants, reduce flooding by absorbing rainfall, and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Did you know Hawaii has more endemic trees than anyUS state? There are around 200 endemic species of trees in the Hawaiian Islands and only around 100 endemic species in all of the continental United States. Although Hawaii is known for its tropical climate, it actually has a wide variety of different types of forests. Hawaii’s forests provide many important benefits, including clean water and air, recreation opportunities, and wildlife habitat.
Unfortunately, many native Hawaiian tree species are in danger of becoming extinct due to habitat loss from deforestation and invasive species such as mosquitoes and ants that eat their seeds. Many other types of trees that grow in Hawaii are also unique or limited to only there, making them especially worth protecting for future generations.
When you think of Hawaii, there’s so much more to the old-growth forests of Hawai’i than what meets the eye.
Here is a list of 12 of the most interesting endemic trees in Hawaii:
The Makou tree is native to the northwest Hawaiian Islands and is one of the rarest trees in the world. The trees are both extremely rare and critically endangered, with less than 50 individuals remaining in the wild. They are one of the oldest species of trees in Hawaii and can grow to be over 50 feet tall.
The Koua`e tree is native to the island of Maui. The wood of this tree was often used in ancient Hawai‘i to make bowls and other wooden items because it was easy to shape and carve. This tree is critically endangered due to habitat loss.
Limu canoe / Hookena
The limu canoe or Hookena is a shrub or small tree in the citrus family that is native to the island of O‘ahu. It is a critically endangered species with less than forty individuals known to exist in the wild. The trees were traditionally used as an herbal medicine and a source of food. Limu is an Hawaiian name for various seaweeds in the alga family and is often used to describe edible algae.
Ha`iwale / Mehane
The ha`iwale / mehane is a tree endemic to the island of Maui. It is known for its beautiful red flowers that attract birds, bees, and other pollinators. The ha`iwale / mehane is threatened by invasive species, such as pigs and goats, and by a lack of pollinators.
The ‘āhi’a tree is endemic to Hawaii, where it is considered a native tree. It can be found growing in forests and lowlands, usually in areas with plentiful rainfall. It is a large tree, growing up to 60 feet tall, with dark reddish-brown bark and branches that grow outward. Not only is the āhi’a tree important culturally, but it also provides habitat for a wide variety of animals, including birds, insects, and mammals. One of the more interesting facts about this tree is the presence of the “silk āhia”, or sticky sap that oozes out from the trunk and branches. This sticky sap can be harvested and is used as a natural fabric.
The ōhi’a lehua is a type of āhi’a tree found in the Hawaiian islands. It is a tall and wide tree, with smooth grey bark. The most well-known variety of ōhi’a lehua is the āhi’a ‘a’a, which is endemic to the island of Hawaii. The ōhi’a lehua tree is culturally significant to native Hawaiians. This species of ōhi’a tree is used in lei making and is often associated with Hawaiian weddings. It is also used to make canoes, ʻahu’ōli (sash cloth), kāhili (feather standards used as symbols of royalty), and oli (chant) boards.
The ha’iwai tree is a flowering tree endemic to the Hawaiian islands, but is now extinct in the wild. It was most common on the island of Oahu and Maui and grew in moist forests. The ha’iwai was a tree often seen near waterfalls. It was a small tree, only growing to be about 8 feet tall. It had small yellow flowers that were pollinated by insects. It is believed that the ha’iwai is extinct because of habitat destruction, as well as the introduction of non-native plants, like the hao hao, which competed for sunlight and water. The ha’iwai is a federally endangered species.
The halape tree is a flowering tree endemic to the Hawaiian islands, but is now extinct in the wild. It was most common on the island of Maui, where it grew in wet forests. This tree was also pollinated by insects. Unfortunately, no one knows what insects pollinated the halape, as the tree has been extinct since the 1950s. The tree was also a host plant for the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, which has also been declared extinct. The halape is a federally endangered species.
The hāpu’u tree is a flowering tree endemic to the Hawaiian islands, but is now extinct in the wild. It was most common on Oahu and Maui and grew in mesic forests. The hāpu’u was a host plant for the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, which has also been declared extinct. The hāpu’u is a federally endangered species.
The hiki ʻōla’a tree is a flowering tree endemic to the Hawaiian islands, but is now extinct in the wild. It was most common on the islands of Oahu, Molokaʻi, and Lānaʻi, where it grew in dry forests. The hiki ʻōla’a was a host plant for the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, which has also been declared extinct. The hiki ʻōla’a is a federally endangered species.
The hōʻailona tree is a flowering tree endemic to the Hawaiian islands, but is now extinct in the wild. It was most common on the island of Oahu, where it grew in wet forests. The hōʻailona was a host plant for the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, which has also been declared extinct. The hōʻailona is a federally endangered species.
The ko’oko’olau tree is a flowering tree endemic to the Hawaiian islands, but is now extinct in the wild. It was most common on the island of Oahu, where it grew in wet forests. The ko’oko’olau was a host plant for the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, which has also been declared extinct. The ko’oko’olau is a federally endangered species. These trees are just a few examples of the endemic trees that live in Hawaii. Hawaiian forests are a rich and diverse ecosystem, which makes them an ideal environment for unique and endemic plant species. The Hawaiian archipelago is home to a number of plant families that are endemic to the islands, including a wide variety of trees. These endemic plants are often extremely localized, with some species found in just a few small areas. This makes them extremely vulnerable to extinction caused by habitat loss, especially as the Hawaiian Islands have been extensively cleared for farming and other development.
Hawaii’s native forests are under threat from a number of human activities. Habitat loss and degradation from development and agriculture are considered to be the greatest threats to Hawaii’s forests. Introduced species such as pigs, goats, and rats also pose a major threat to native plants. Additionally, climate change has the potential to have negative impacts on Hawaii’s forests as time goes by. As temperatures rise, it is likely that forests will become drier, which could cause them to become more vulnerable to fires.
What is being done?
The U.S. Forest Service Hawaii State and National Parks and the National Tropical Botanical Garden are partnering to increase protection and restoration efforts for the Hawaiian forests. Partnerships with the public and private sectors such as Livin’ Aloha are also important to the protection of Hawaii’s forests.
What can you do?
You can help just by shopping here at Livin’ Aloha! Every product you buy here plants a native tree in Hawai’i through a partnership with Dr. Mora’s tree-planting lab at the University of Hawai’i.
Planting endemic Hawaiian species in your backyard or on your roof is another way to preserve the Hawaiian forest landscape if you wanted to take it to the next level.
Trees are an important part of our environment, and provide us with food, clean air and water, and other benefits, but trees are even more important here in Hawai’i. Trees help regulate our unique climate and ecosystems, and also sequester carbon, helping mitigate the greenhouse effect. Despite their many benefits, many forests in Hawai’ are threatened by invasive species, over development, agriculture, and a lack of forest management.
Hawaiian endemic trees are among the most endangered trees worldwide. They are found only in the Hawaiian Island chain, and many of them found only on single islands. The Hawaiian Islands have the highest concentration of endemic trees of any place on earth! The reason they are so endangered is that they are very difficult to see and not many people know where they are. It is important to protect these endangered trees as they are crucial to our environment and Hawaii’s future.
What kind of trees are planted through the Livin' Aloha tree-planting program? Great question!
The decisions about what trees to plant and where they are planted are all led by Dr. Camilo Mora and his tree-planting lab at the University of Hawai’i through an initiative called the Carbon Neutrality Challenge.
So far, the project is focused on planting 5 different Hawai'i native tree species that have been selected for their survivability and ecosystem benefits. These 5 tree species include Koa, Wiliwili, Kou, Lonomea, and Milo.
You can learn more about them below.
Koa – the most valuable and famous tree in Hawai’i, the word koa also means warrior in Hawaiian. This tree doesn’t grow anywhere else in the world. Its wood is durable, beautiful and long-lasting and sometimes called “Hawaiian mahogany.” In old Hawai’i the wood was used to build ocean-going canoes, surfboards, ukuleles, and spear handles. Koa was considered the wood of Hawaiian royalty and even today is revered as one of the most valuable hardwoods in the world. *Fun Fact: Brink’s guitar is made from koa wood
Wiliwili – really strong deciduous tree that can grow in the harshest environments and able to grow to 50 feet tall and its canopy spreads to 50 feet wide. It’s a flowering tree that can produce flowers of different colors. This tree creates a lightweight wood that was used in old Hawai’i to build canoes, surfboards, and fishing baskets. The flowers were used to make leis and to make medicines.
Kou – highly prized among ancient Hawaiians who used the leaves to dye kapa cloth, create medicines and to create wood art carvings due to the beauty of its grain and ease of carving. In old Hawai’i, kou was used to create dishes, utensils and for food storage. Kou is a flowering tree and the orange flowers were often used to make leis. It’s drought, wind, and salt tolerant making it a really good survivor.
Lonomea – known for their large hanging fruit which is tasty to birds but not people. It’s a large tree up to 60 feet with a white trunk and small white flowers. The seeds were used to create medicines and leis in old Hawai’i and the wood was also used to create spears for hunting and fishing.
Milo – known as “Pacific rosewood,” Milo trees were considered sacred by early Polynesians. The home of King Kamehameha I in Waikiki was surrounded by milo trees. They grow to a height of 50 feet with a spread of 30 feet providing great shade. Its wood was prized for making bowls, carvings, calabashes, and dishes and the bark was used as cordage, the fruits used to create dyes, medicines, oils, and gum. The massive root system of the trees allows them to grow well on sandy beaches in full sun and they are a great way to prevent erosion. The tree produces flowers that resemble the yellow hibiscus, which is a close cousin. There is a Hawaiian proverb which refers to the use of the leaves, blossoms or seeds of the milo in love magic, hana aloha. It says, "He milo ka la'au, mimilo ke aloha." (Milo is the plant; love goes round and round.)
Livin' Aloha is partnered with the MoraLab at The University of Hawai’i and the Carbon Neutrality Challenge so that every product purchased plants a tree in Hawai'i.
The result? A healthier environment, more vibrant communities, and a step toward our commitment to leave the world better than we found it.
The goal of the project is to cultivate a culture of tree planting on the islands of Hawai’i and to increase the number of trees on the islands and in our communities. Consider making an investment in this project and becoming a part of the movement!