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Ancient Hawaiian Tradition Threatened by Invasive Bug

Ray Jerome Baker
Hawaii State Archives

One of Hawaiʻi's famous native plants is under threat. The hala or pandanus tree can grow up to 30 feet tall and is characterized by its long, sharp and spiny leaves. Those trees are now being attacked by an invasive predator. And the cultural practitioners whose traditions depend on hala are feeling the impact. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports.

Marques Hanalei Marzan has been weaving lauhala for more than 20 years. He perpetuates the centuries-old tradition of weaving dried leaves of the pandanus or hala tree.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Lauhala weaver and fiber artist Marques Hanalei Marzan is working on a traditional Hawaiian fan made of leaves from the hala or pandanus tree.

“The hala tree was very significant in Hawai’i and really the rest of the Pacific. You know, that’s the primary source of weaving material for utilitarian objects from baskets to mats,” says Marzan.

“They were used for the sails of canoes, so you know, when you think of it from that perspective that was the one material necessary for our people of the Pacific to really inhabit and settle all of the islands," says Marzan.

Marzan shares the story of hala as he weaves fine strips of the leaf or lauhala into a traditional Hawaiian fan. He explains the type of leaf you harvest depends on the type of weaving project you undertake. If you need a lot of detail like his lauhala fan or a bracelet…

Credit David Eickhoff
A hala grove at Ho'omaluhia Botanical Gardens on O'ahu. Hala or pandanus is indigenous to the Hawaiian islands.

“Then you would look for lau (leaves) that are soft and supplem,” says Marzan, “If you’re a maker of you know large and practical things like very heavy-duty baskets or floor mats with the big weave then you would want to look for lauhala that are actually more thick and stiff.”

Credit Department of Agriculture
Department of Agriculture
Visible dead leaves and damaged crowns on an infested hala tree.

Marzan harvests leaves from hala groves in Haʻikū, where he grew up. But those groves and others across the island chain are now under threat by an invasive species – the hala scale.

“The hala scale is a hard scale that attacks only hala,” says Derek Arakaki, a pest control specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, “First it stops producing fruit then eventually you get a lot of leaf fall. When the infestation gets so high, the plant will die.”

Credit Department of Agriculture
Department of Agriculture
Leaf yellowing and discoloration of a severely infested hala tree crown. Yellowing can typically be found on top of the leaf with the scales underneath.

The hala scale causes leaf deformities, discoloration, stunting, twisting  – rendering the leaves useless to weavers. Systemic insecticides have proven successful in the state’s eradication efforts, but public education remains the greatest weapon against the invasive scale.

“It's important that lauhala weavers be selective in where they get their leaves from. Be on the lookout for the hala scale,” says Arakaki, “If you look closely with a hand lens, it’s oval with a ring around the edge. What you see is white fluff around the black scale.”

It was originally discovered in Hāna in 1995. Within a decade, it spread over the entire island of Maui. Since then, infestations were also found on Oʻahu and Molokaʻi.

“It’s really really sad to see the impact of this scale on the lauhala weaving community,” says Marzan, “This one little insect can really make a big difference in how we approach our cultural practice.”

If you suspect a new infestation of hala scale, please call: 

  • Hawaii Island: 974-4146
  • Kauai: 241-7132
  • Oahu: 973-9525
  • Or Email: hdoa.ppc@Hawaii.gov

To prevent the further spread of this invasive species:

  • Do not move any hala plants (Pandanus spp.), seeds, or green leaves interisland
  • Do not visit other areas with hala after being exposed to infested trees
  • When moving brown leaves from an area of infestation, or interisland, double bag and freeze for at least 48 hours
  • Monitor your hala plants regularly and look for signs of yellowing or discoloration of leaves, or check the undersides for black and brown scales
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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