Kauila (Alphitonia ponderosa) – Respecting kūpuna and iwi

Back in the mid-1990s, John (Culliney) and I often explored the remnant dry forests of Kohala, Kona and Ka‘u on the Big Island. One of the nicer forests, free of fountain grass and other weeds, was in Ka‘u. What made the place particularly special were the half dozen or so Alphitonia ponderosa, kauila. (Alphitonia are today very rare on all the Islands except Kaua‘i.) These were old trees, but still every summer we visited we would find them in flower or with their unusual acorn-like fruits. In 2009, I went to Ka‘u specifically to see these old kauila; it had been almost ten years since John’s and my last visit. I spent two or three hours combing the forest for the kauila, checking and rechecking my field notes. They were gone. Not dead – gone. I could only conclude that someone had cut the trees down and hauled them away, perhaps, to sell the wood, perhaps, to fashion the wood into pseudo-Hawaiian weapons. I had seen and heard of this happening before; a maua in North Kona with a large branch cleanly cut off, an uhiuhi in Kohala that disappeared overnight. And, I had heard the justifications; “I have a right to carry on my cultural traditions.” or “The tree was already dead. I wasn’t going to let the wood go to waste.”

Recently, I was lucky enough to hear Yvonne Carter, one of the stewards of the native dry forest at Ka‘upulehu, share her perspective on the dead trees of our native forests with a group of volunteers for the day. Yvonne referred to the old but still-living native trees as kūpuna and the dead trees as iwi. She told us that the iwi still have value, still have purpose in the forest. One of these purposes was to show us where to look for the hidden seeds of these rare trees among the ‘a‘ā and soil at their base. Another was to mark the location of a successful life, a place where we might plant new trees with more than a prayer for their survival. And, finally, the iwi were a reminder of what was and could be again if we worked together. As Yvonne spoke, I remember wishing that the thieves who had cut down the kauila could be with us to hear her. Hawaiians revere their kūpuna and their dead, skillfully protecting their bones, their mana, from disturbance or desecration. Perhaps, one day, everyone will not only share that reverence, but also extend it to all the non-human kūpuna and iwi of our Islands.

Habitat & Appearance: Alphitonia are medium-sized (maximum of 80 feet) trees common in the mesic forests of west Kaua‘i and rare or absent on all the other islands. Interestingly, on Maui and Hawai‘i, Alphitonia are trees of the dry forest. It is an attractive tree with its pointed and often-crinkled leaves. Some varieties have an obvious rusty tinge because of the dense red hairs on the leaves’ undersurface. Flowers are small, white, and develop in clusters. Of course, it is the fruits that attract one’s attention. They resemble the acorns of oaks, ripening to a grey or black.

(Top to Bottom) Developing (green) and ripe (black) fruits of Alphitonia (photograph courtesy of C. H. Lamoureux & G. D. Carr ©). Alphitonia seedling. Mature Alphitonia on Maui (photograph courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr ©). Header photograph courtesy of David Eickhoff ©.

Kauila in Hawaiian Culture: Pre-contact Hawaiians did not have regular access to metal. Therefore, the hard dense wood of kauila was particularly valuable in the construction of items that other indigenous people made of metal such as tools and weapons. Additionally, the wood was used for hale beams, game pieces, and musical instruments. A bluish dye was extracted from the leaves and bark (Krauss 1993).

Collecting Seeds: Alphitonia fruits ripen from May to September. Collect only grey or black fruits; green fruits require further ripening. The fruits are quite hard with each fruit composed of 2-3 fused capsules with one seed inside each capsule. To extract the seeds, I crack the fruit with a small C-clamp into the smaller capsules and then place the capsules in a dry place. After several hours or a day, the capsules will open by themselves and the seeds are easy to remove. A thin parchment covers each of the black seeds and should be removed prior to sowing or storing. Alphitonia seeds will remain viable for 5-10 years in the refrigerator. After that, I’ve found most of my stored seeds do not germinate.

Growing from Seed: Soak kauila seed 2-3 days prior to scarring (with sandpaper). After sowing using Method One, the seeds take 1-2 months to germinate. Seedling growth is good (six inches in about three months), particularly if you use a liquid fertilizer once or twice a week. Seedlings are occasionally plagued by mites. (See Enemies in the Garden for treatments.) I normally plant out kauila seedlings when they reach a minimum of 10 inches in height.

Growing from Cuttings: I have never grown this species from cuttings.

Growth in the Garden: Alphitonia are very slow-growing trees. Even when irrigated they seem to take their time. This is in contrast to the other kauila, Colubrina oppositifolia, that isn’t a fast grower, but is definitely faster than Alphitonia. On the bright side, Alphitonia begin flowering and fruiting when they are only 2-3 feet tall. Be smart and collect these fruits religiously for storage or to give away to friends since it’s becoming harder and hard to find these trees elsewhere.

Diseases & Pests: Like other Hawaiian hardwood trees, Alphitonia is attacked by the black twigborer. Fortunately, once the tree is 2-3 feet tall, these attacks are normally not (instantly) fatal. Refer to Enemies in the Garden on how to battle black twigbores. Infrequently, I have found whitefly on the leaves’ undersurface. Normally, I just ignore these pests and the ladybugs eventually take care of them.

Ā ā Ē ē Ī ī Ō ō Ū ū