Nature: Lehua Blooms

When you should--and when you shouldn’t--pick this flower.
photo: Rita Ariyoshi/Pacific Stock
‘Ohi’a lehua
Metrosideros polymorpha

One of the first things Hawaiian families tell their keiki, when hiking into the mountains, is to not pick the beautiful, bright-red lehua blossoms of the native Hawaiian ‘OHI’A TREE—lest it rain on them. Only when leaving the upland region can one safely pick the blossom, according to legend.

The scarlet, powder-puff flower is made up of many male flowers (stamens), each anchored in cuplike nectar collectors. The nectar lures native Hawaiian honeycreeper birds—‘apapane, i’iwi, ‘amakihi and ‘akohekohe (‘aniainau on Kaua’i)—which then spread the pollen. The ‘ohi’a and the honeycreepers have co-existed and evolved over millions of years in isolation.

‘Ohi’a trees dominate the Hawaiian rainforest at elevations between 1,000 and 10,000 feet on most of the major islands. Yet, forms of ‘ohi’a survive in almost every microclimate, from sea level to rainforest.

Lei made from the vivid red lehua blossoms (pua lehua), mature leaves (lau lehua), reddish-bronze young leaves and leaf buds (liko lehua) and seed pods (hua lehua) will be popping up at May Day/Lei Day contests. The most common blossom is the red lehua, the official flower of the island of Hawai’i: the flowers can also be salmon, pink, yellow or white.

All parts of the ‘ohi’a tree were valuable to ancient Hawaiians, according to University of Hawai’i botany professor emeritus Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott. According to Abbott, ‘ohi’a wood was used in constructing the traditional Hawaiian hale, canoes, spears, mallets and in carving sacred figures. The ‘ohi’a lehua tree was believed to be the Hawaiian plant form (kinolau) of the gods Kane and Ku, according to Abbott, who adds that the reddish color of the freshly cut wood may have been considered appropriate for figures associated with sacrifices.

A decade ago, scientists began to wonder why the ‘ohi’a lehua tree did not die in the presence of toxic sulfur gases as did other plants in the area. They found that the plant literally closes down the pores through which it normally takes in carbon dioxide for food—an adaptation from co-existing with active volcanoes.