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Hawai?i Ramps up Fight for ??hi?a Lehua


Governor David Ige proclaimed today, April 25, ??hi?a Lehua Day in Hawai?i. Over the past eight years, millions of ??hi?a lehua trees on Hawai?i Island died from a fungal disease known as Rapid ??hi?a Death. Not much was known about the disease until now. HPR Reporter Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has this stoy.

Native Hawaiians have a specific name for the mist-like rain of Hilo - Kanilehua, which means rain that lehua flowers drink. Lehua is the flower of the ??hi?a tree, which has come under attack in recent years by a fungal disease known as Rapid ??hi?a Death. 

“The ??hi?a lehua is of such significance to our culture,” says Kaua?i cultural practitioner Sabra Kauka, “It is a primary plant in our forest, in our practice of hula, in our mele...it is a part of our ?ohana. And should that plant disappear, I would feel like a part of us was missing.”

Kauka says the survival of the culture depends on the survival of the plant. 

The latest aerial survey of the Big Island's ??hi?a forests estimate as many as 135,000 acres affected by Rapid ??hi?a Death.The disease was first discovered in Puna in 2010.

Credit Department of Land and Natural Resources
Department of Land and Natural Resources

“Now in this case, we saw these dying ??hi?a trees and we didn’t know what was killing them,” says J.B. Friday, Extension Forester with the University of Hawai?i’s Cooperative Extension Service. 

Newly published research revealed ??hi?a was actually being attacked not by one but two separate pathogens.

“The fact that there are two different species of fungus explains a lot of our field observations,” says Friday, “In the field sometimes we’d see trees, the whole tree dies really quickly top to bottom. Sometimes we’d see only a branch die. So now we know there are two different diseases.” 

These are newly discovered fungal species, found nowhere else in the world. As such, the pathogens were given Hawaiian names in consultation with Kekuhi Keali?ikanaka?oleohaililani - ceratocystis luku??hi?a or "destroyer of ??hi?a" which causes systemic wilt, and ceratocystis huli??hi?a a slow-spreading localized pathogen.

“I think when you see miles and miles of dead forest it's kind of scary and alarming,” says Lacy Matsumoto. 

She stewards 20 acres of ??hi?a forest in Mountain View known as the Lyons Estate. She’s gathering and storing ??hi?a seeds as a “genetic safety net.” Her seed bank will help researchers test for resistant ??hi?a varieties and enable restoration of impacted areas.

“Banking the seeds is just another opportunity to buy time,” says Matsumoto, “And once it's time to reforest they can pull from the reserves and there is something we can contribute.”

“We've really just been lucky that everybody on Hawai?i Island and really statewide are concerned about their ??hi?a forests and so they want to learn about ways that they can help,” says Rob Hauff, State Protection Forester for the Department of Land and Natural Resources. 

Last year, Hawai?i came up with a comprehensive three-year Strategic Response Plan for rapid ??hi?a death. The plan focuses on research and outreach as well as impact prevention, including aerial surveys on the Big Island every quarter and statewide twice a year. 

“We are using tablets to draw in on maps where we are finding disease symptoms and the ground crews go out and verify whether it is in fact the fungi that causes rapid ??hi?a death,” says Hauff.

While there’s no timeline for eliminating rapid ??hi?a death, Kauka points to the tree’s resilience as a sign.

“The ??hi?a lehua is the first plant to grow after a fresh lava flow that comes through,” says Kauka, “The ??hi?a is the first plant to grow there.”

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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