The Real Myth Behind the Lehua Tree

He la’au ku ho’okahi, he lehua no Ka’ala. 

A Lone tree, a lehua of Ka’ala

By Puakea

Bright red ribbons glowing in the sunlight contrast from their crown of olive green myrtle leaves to stand as silent sentinels in the barren landscape of Kilauea.

Pele, the volcano goddess was enamored with a handsome young warrior, Ohi’a. When she asked him to marry her, he confessed his heart was already pledged to another, the beautiful Lehua. Pele was enraged at his rejection and in her fury transformed Ohi’a into a tree. As she gazed at his arboreal form, she felt a moment of compassion for Lehua who must have loved Ohi’a very much. So Pele turned Lehua into his blossom where today she blooms in the Ohi’a forests of Puna with her fiery red pom pom of Pele’s hair illuminated bright red by the sun’s translucent light. 

It is believed the progenitor of the Ohi’a Lehua may have risen on the updrafts from a Japanese mountain, 40,000 feet high into the atmosphere, and traveled across the pacific at subfreezing temperatures, to find its way to the most remote islands from any major continent. The incredible biodiversity of the Hawaiʻian islands is defined by different biozones at various elevations. The Ohia lehua forests are the dominant tree species at 1,300 feet. 

When a blossom is picked,  the lovers are separated and Lehua’s tears fall as rain, the very same day. The Ohi’a Lehua is uniquely adapted for Pele’s toxic emissions at the Hale’umau’mau crater. When her acid smoke of arsenic, sulfur dioxide and other deadly gases would be toxic for most other plant species, pores on the underside of the leaf close themselves to virtually hold their breath until the air is breathable again, and they reopen. 

 Ohi’a Lehua is endemic to Hawaiʻi and is considered a pioneer species, one of the first trees to populate a newly created lava field. Like Ohi’a the warrior, the wood is strong and is one of the materials of choice for Hawaiʻians to build their traditional hale, homes. The logs would be soaked in the ocean and cured for a week and then dried before building, to ensure there were no wood boring insects that could be detrimental to a structure. This hard wood species flourishes in old growth forests on the slopes of one of the world’s most active volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. 

If you delicately tap a lehua blossom in your hand, you can taste the pollen and sweetness of their love. Some of the most delicious honey is cultivated from beehives near Ohi’a Lehua forests in the kaloko region at 1,500 foot elevation and the neighboring kona coffee belt on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa.

Feature Image Photo Credit: Brian Ross, 2020

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