Taking root

“It all started with that ohia over there,” said Katie Romanchuk, nodding at the gnarled tree a stone’s throw from her lanai.

Romanchuk had been living for years on West Kuiaha Road in Haiku when she noticed the native tree, half-hidden behind some shrubs and tall grasses on a nearby property. She wandered over to get a closer look – and felt her heart skip a beat when she found a small grove of mature ohia standing their ground in the overgrown, empty lot.

“I was astonished that they were right across the street from where I lived,” she recalled.

That discovery sparked a passion bordering on obsession for Romanchuk, a substitute teacher. She was eventually able to buy the 6-acre property, build a small home, and has spent the last dozen years working to restore a native wilderness garden.

“It’s a labor of love,” she said.

Shortly after she took it over, a survey found numerous native plant species on the land, including aalii, alahee, waiwaiole and palai fern. But they were being crowded out by invasives like guava, Christmasberry and aggressive, non-native grasses.

So Romanchuk got to work. She started clearing out the interlopers, and planting more native species – working with local nurseries to find and select plants known to favor the Haiku area as much as possible.

She also worked to educate herself about plants, joining the Native Hawaiian Plant Society, taking an ethnobotany class at then-Maui Community College, and reaching out to experts to learn more.

And two years ago, she applied to and was accepted by the National Resources and Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which provides cost-sharing funds and technical support to property owners working to restore native forests on their land.

Romanchuk said that the program has been a godsend, helping her install an irrigation system, providing funding to buy plants, and allowing her to hire some outside labor to help with weeding after a neck injury forced her to slow down last year.

Today, Romanchuk is intensively restoring 2 acres of her property, while maintaining and caring for native trees on the entire parcel.

Since she moved in, the 14 native species originally identified on her property have increased to 55 different varieties of plants. The small grove of trees that originally caught her eye has been expanded to more than 100 ohia, from mature trees several decades old to young saplings only a few inches high. Romanchuk estimates she has planted more than 1,200 new plants since being accepted to the NRCS program two years ago.

There have been challenges along the way. Rose beetles are a constant threat to her ohia trees, eating their leaves into lace under the cover of darkness. And even though she knew the garden would take a lot of maintenance, Romanchuk said she was unprepared for how aggressively the weeds would try to return, and how many hours she would have to spend every day keeping them at bay.

“I call myself a weed-aholic,” she said. “I’m addicted to weeding. It’s hard for me to walk past a weed and not pull it out.”

Romanchuk grew up in Oakland, where she said her parents instilled in her an appreciation of the environment and natural beauty; a botany class in college honed her interest in plants. When she moved to Maui and started learning about the island’s ecology, she said she was moved to learn how plants took thousands of years to reach the islands and evolve into completely unique, native species; and how humans have now destroyed most of those species over a period of just a few hundred years.

Romanchuk said her goal is to transform her property into a place that can help “educate, inspire, encourage” others to appreciate and grow native plants. Eventually, she would like to be able to bring individuals and small groups onto the property for educational visits.

The property also provides a showcase for the kinds of plants that would have made up a native ecosystem in Haiku a few generations ago.

“There are very few examples of native plants at this elevation in this area of Maui,” she noted.

Romanchuk said the restoration project has changed her. She said she now notices native plants wherever she goes – and is also much more aware of how aggressively invasive species are encroaching on the ecosystem. She spends most of her free time weeding and finds it hard to take a vacation, but said she wouldn’t trade the experience for an easier life.

“I feel a duty to protect this land, because of the ohia trees that were here,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

Romanchuk welcomes individual or group volunteers to help with weeding, planting and other projects. For more information, contact her at ohialani@hotmail.com or 214-8887.

To learn more about the NRCS EQIP program, contact Ranae Ganske-Cerizo at 871-5500, ext. 107.