Trees in Hawaii
Almond is a small tree that grows to a height of up to 33 feet (10 m). Its trunk is about 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter. The tree’s twigs are first green and then turn purple when they are exposed to sunlight. Later, after about one year, they turn gray. The flowers of the almond tree are white or light pink in color, coming out in early spring. Almond trees reach full maturity after 5-6 years. The fruit matures in the fall, about 7-8 months after flowering. Almonds are not a true nut, but rather a drupe, which consist of an outer hull and a shell with the seed (the nut) inside. The almond tree is native to South Asia and the Middle East.
The banana tree is one of the most popular food plants of the tropics. The ancient Hawaiians developed 70 varieties of banana. Even though it is listed here in the tree section, banana is actually not a tree, even though some varieties can reach heights of up to 30 feet (9 m). The banana plant’s trunks are leaf stems that grow very tightly together. It is so tight that new leaves that want to grow up from the center produce a talcum powder to ease their way up. After growing for about a year, the stalk grows a flower spear, which comes out in the center and then hangs down and develops bananas. After the bananas ripen, the tree has to be cut down. Otherwise, it will wither. The core of the plant which is located under the soil will then send new shoots up to become a new tree.
Banyan trees can be seen all over the Hawaiian Islands. People who see these trees for the first time often gaze at them in awe. Some banyan tree species can be real giants, such as for example the Indian banyan, which is one of the broadest-spreading trees in the world. As banyan trees grow, they drop aerial roots to the ground from the undersides of their branches. When these roots touch the ground, they thicken and grow into the earth, forming a new trunk. Large banyans can have so many trunks that it is difficult to tell which one is the main trunk, the core. A good example of such a large banyan is the popular banyan tree in downtown Lahaina on Maui. It covers three-quarters of an acre. There are about 60 types of banyans (ficus) in Hawaii.
The breadfruit tree has big green leaves up to 2 feet (61 cm) long. Polynesians on voyaging canoes brought this tree to Hawaii because of its fruit, which can be boiled or roasted. Its starchy pulp is rather tasteless but provides valued nutrition and an easy to grow food source. The ancient Hawaiians didn’t eat much breadfruit (ulu) and used it mainly to feed hogs. But ulu poi (breadfruit mixed with taro) was more popular.
There are dozens of coconut palm tree species of Hawaii. All but one, the loulu (genus Pritchardia), were brought here by humans. About 19 types of loulu exist in the Islands, but they are rare and many endangered. The coconut tree is considered one of the most useful trees in the world. The coconut fruit has water and milk which can be drunk and flesh that can be eaten. From the pulp, coconut oil can be extracted. The oil can be used in cooking, cosmetics and for lamp fuel. Coconut leaves can be used for weaving and thatching (for example to make roofs) and the fibers to make for example sandals. Coconut husks can be used for food bowls and the trunk to build all kinds of things. Some coconut tree species can grow up to 100 feet (30 m) tall. The coconut is one of the largest seeds known, and even after floating in the ocean for months it can still sprout after making landfall.
More than 90 eucalyptus tree species have been introduced to Hawaii. Native to mainly Australia, eucalyptus trees grow fast and can reach heights of up to 300 feet (91 m), making them the tallest hardwood trees in the world. A common sight on all the main Hawaiian islands is the rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta), also known as Bagras eucalyptus or Mindanao gum. Its main distinguishing feature is its colorful trunk. As the outer bark falls off, the trunk reveals layers of green, red, orange, yellow, pink and purple. This species if native to the Philippines and Indonesia. It is one of the fastest growing trees in the world, reaching 100 feet (30 m) in just seven years.
Native to southern Asia, the golden shower tree grows fast and up to 33-66 feet (10-20 m) tall. When in bloom, its yellow flowers are a pretty sight and the name golden shower explains its look well. The tree’s seeds are poisonous. The tree has a very strong and durable wood.
The hala tree is also referred to as screwpine and grows from sea level up to an elevation of 2,000 feet (610 m). It is a common sight in Hawaii’s coastal regions (especially on the islands’ windward coasts). Male flowers are fragrant and small, arranged in drooping clusters about 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) long. Female flowers produce a large fruit that looks almost like a pineapple. Male hala trunks are hard and solid while female trunks are soft inside. The ancient Hawaiians used hala leaves (lau hala) to make baskets, mats, hats, sandals and in construction, for example, to make roofs. Lau hala roofs can last up to 15 years while roofs made from coconut leaves usually last just three years. The trees fruit can be eaten but was consumed usually only during times of famine.
The koa is Hawaii’s most common native tree. It is also a common sight in landscaped gardens. Koa trees grow fast and can reach heights of 100 feet (30 m). The beautiful reddish-brown koa wood is prized for its strength and weight, similar to black walnut. The ancient Hawaiians used koa wood to make canoes, paddles and furnishings.
Native to Australia, the macadamia nut tree was first introduced to Hawaii in 1890. The tree has thin leaves that have sharp, tooth-like edges. Macadamia nuts are very hard and dense, and it is impossible to crack their brown shell with one’s hand only. A hammer or special machine is necessary to open them.
Mangrove trees grow in places where other trees would never take root, such as in seaside marshes, in saltwater or brackish water. To avoid drowning, the mangrove grows stilt roots above the water line. These arching aerial roots form a dense thicket. Mangroves have the ability to stabilize a shoreline by collecting silt and soil and for this reason were brought to Hawaii in 1902. They were first planted to stabilize Molokai’s mud flats in the southwestern part of the island. Now mangrove trees can also be found on Kauai (for example along the Wailua River), on Oahu (for example on the Kaneohe Bay shoreline), on Lanai and the Big Island.
Commonly known as Indian mulberry, the noni tree was brought to Hawaii by the early Hawaiians. They treasured the fruit for its many uses, including the treatment of common ailments, such as wounds and pain. They also extracted dyes for their kapa clothes from the tree, red from the bark and yellow from the tree’s trunk and roots. Today, noni is sold as a nutritional supplement in many health food stores. The noni fruit emits a stinky odor and many people don’t like the fruit’s taste. It takes some getting used to. Alternatively, one can mix a small amount of noni juice with another sweeter fruit juice or eat noni fruit leather, which is also more palatable.
Papaya trees can grow to a height of up to 25 feet (7.6 m). The tree grows leaves only on the top and the fruit dangles on the side of the trunk. The trunk doesn’t consist of wood but is rather hollow. It is held together by fibers in the bark. Papaya trees usually only live for about 10 years, in which time they are very productive. The trees bear fruit year-round. The papaya fruit has either yellow, orange or red meat (depending on the species) and the core of the fruit contains black round seeds. The seeds have a gelatinous coating and have a mustard flavor. They are edible and are believed to have medicinal properties. In Hawaii, it is customary to serve one seed together with the fruit. Papayas contain many vitamins as well as the enzyme papain, which can be used as a meat tenderizer.
Royal Poinciana trees are small trees with fern fronds and when in bloom-laden with red, orange and yellow flowers. In the winter months, the fern fronds and flowers drop to the ground and the trees stand bare. The tree’s flat bean pods hang from the tree year-round and are first green and then black in color. Their seeds are strung into lei. The tree is native to Madagascar.
The kigelia tree is more commonly known as sausage tree, referring to the sausage-like fruit it bears. The fruit is heavy and wood-like and difficult to open without a knife. In its raw state, it is poisonous. In African folk medicine, it is first dried, roasted or fermented before being consumed to cure a variety of ailments, such as rheumatism or snakebites. The tree grows up to 65 feet (20 m) tall and its bark is gray and peeling on older trees. Its wood is a pale brown or yellow. The tree is interesting to look at because of its unusual looking fruit, however, it is not a good idea to have a picnic in a sausage tree’s shade as the falling fruit can cause serious injury.
Here in Hawaii, coffee is commercially cultivated in coffee plantations on the mountain slopes, but it also grows wild in the lightly shady understory of wet to mesic (moderately wet) forests at lower elevations. The wild plants are propagated by bird and animal-dispersed seeds. The edible roasted coffee beans (seeds) are used to make coffee and other coffee-based beverages and used as a flavoring for other foods like deserts, candies, and liqueurs. The also edible slightly sweet, red, fleshy outer layer of the fruit is removed and the coffee bean inside is roasted and then ground and brewed. Coffee beans contain caffeine, a mild stimulant that is also used for medicinal purposes like the treatment of headaches. The flowers are visited by honeybees and produce sweet light-colored honey. The flowers are fragrant.