‘Ōhi‘a used in Merrie Monarch lei can be returned to land without spreading disease

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Je’ani-Jade Kalamaolaikapohakea Pavao with Hula Hālau ‘O Kamuela is adorned in lehua during her kahiko on April 13, 2023. (Merrie Monarch Festival Facebook)

The ʻŌhiʻa tree is rooted in tragedy in some Hawaiian legends.

Once a beautiful man, ʻŌhiʻa captured the eye of the fire goddess Pele. But her affection for him was not returned. ʻŌhiʻa’s heart belonged to the beautiful woman named Lehua.

Out of jealousy, Pele turned ʻŌhiʻa into a gnarled tree. In her grief, Lehua pleaded to her ‘aumakua [family protectors] for help. They decided to transform her into a red blossom that would adorn the tree so the lovers may never be parted.

To this day, it is said that if you pick a lehua blossom it will rain because the lovers are being separated.

The ʻŌhiʻa is facing tragedy once again. A fungus known as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death is killing Hawaiʻi’s native tree, threatening its very existence.


For years, many hālau participating in Merrie Monarch festivities have avoided using ʻōhiʻa in lei in an effort to avoid the spread of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death.

This year is no different.

But it’s a conundrum because ‘ōhi‘a is an integral part of Hawaiian stories and natural history.

Huihui Kanahele-Mossman, executive director of the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation and dancer for Halau O Kekuhi, said the ʻōhiʻa is one of the kinolau (plant forms) dancers will perform for. In the hierarchy of plant forms, Kanahele-Mossman said ʻōhiʻa is on the top.

“It’s a pioneer plant,” she explained. “It’s one of the first trees to grow back after a lava flow.”


In an effort to stem the spread of Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death, Kanahele-Mossman said hālau have used the opportunity to learn more about other plant forms that represent hula.

But for those dancers who do use the tree’s lehua blossom or young leaves, known as liko, she said it is common practice to return lei, no matter the flower or leaf used, back to the ‘āina. And it can be done safely without spreading the disease.

The ʻŌhiʻa tree features lehua in bloom. (Big Island Invasive Species Committee)

Kanahele-Mossman explained that lei making and hula is a process, from gathering the organic material to making the lei to getting the dress ready. After the dance is done, the lei should be returned to the forest or tree where the flowers were picked.

“If that’s not done, you’re not done,” Kanahele-Mossman said. “Returning the ‘ōhi‘a back to the ‘āina provides a feeling of completion.”

And it is important to not spread the disease. She said: “Bottom line, if we don’t have the forest we don’t have hula.”


Dancers are an extension of the forest and hula is how Hawaiians participate in nature.

“We need to make sure we have the forest for generations,” she said.

Ōhi‘a trees ravaged with the disease that causes their death.

Since 2016, inspectors with the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture’s Quarantine Branch have been at Hilo and Kona airports after Merrie Monarch to make sure people do not leave with ʻōhiʻa. Itʻs illegal to do so.

Inspectors will be at the airports this year as well. ‘Ōhi‘a material collected will be respectfully returned to the native forests.

“If you go back four to five years ago, we used to collect trash bags of Lehua at the airports,” said Donn Yanagisawa, Hawai‘i County Supervisor for Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture’s Quarantine Branch.

But with the public education conducted about the problem, inspectors have been seeing less of it.

If hālau do have lehua or liko in their lei, they can also return it to the ‘āina on their own by leaving it at mile markers 12 and 16 along Daniel K. Inouye Highway. These locations were chosen by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ wildlife division because the area already is heavily infested with the disease.

“People don’t want it to be just thrown to the trash after making something with such care,” said Franny Brewer, manager at the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.

Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death was first noticed in 2010 in Puna. In 2014, the fungus was identified. And by 2016, it was illegal for people to transport any part of the ʻōhiʻa off the island. At that time, hālau took it upon themselves years ago to help prevent the spread of the fungus by not gathering the tree’s lehua blossoms or liko for Merrie Monarch.

“It was really striking when hālau chose not to use it because it’s in so many mo‘olelo [stories],” Brewer said. “People really rallied to try to do the best for ʻōhiʻa. It’s been heartening to see from that standpoint.”

From what she could tell, Brewer said it wasn’t until 2019 that lehua started showing up again in adornments during the Merrie Monarch competition.

Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death was detected on Kauaʻi in 2018 and on O‘ahu in 2019. Also in 2019, one ʻōhiʻa tree on Maui was infected and destroyed. The disease has not been detected on Maui since. It is not known how the disease entered the state or where it came from.

But on the Big Island, Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death is still spreading.

To help combat the problem, Kanahele-Mossman said it became part of hālau practice to brush their shoes when they went to the forest to gather plants for lei making and to spray their tires with alcohol to kill any fungus.

Brewer said a tree needs a wound, or break in the bark, for the fungus to get in. Just under the bark, Brewer explained it’s the living layer of the tree where nutrients flow up and down.

“Fungus gets inside that layer and it chokes that tree and it can no longer pass nutrients up and down the tree,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. They’re living beings and they’re hard to lose.”

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