The State of Aloha

The next time you drive out to Hana or other points east on Maui, have a look at the lush valleys you pass through on the Hana Highway. Don’t be embarrassed if folks think you’re a tourist slowing down to take in the view. You are sure to see verdant hills and countless trees filling the gulches. You are also sure to see bright orange and golden flowers dotting the scenery. These flowers bloom brightly and are an exotic contrast to the emerald green leaves surrounding them.

I remember noticing these flowering trees when I was much younger with my Dad. We were heading to Hana when I saw the bright flowers dominating the landscape. “They’re invasive,” he said sternly. I was taken aback. Invasive? Like the mongoose or feral cat? How can that be? It’s so pretty.

Back then they weren’t in our neck of the woods. We were too far from Hana, I guess. Slowly and subtly, however, I started to notice the orange flowers creeping closer and closer to Huelo and Haiku. Before I knew it, they were surrounding our house.

The yard was strewn with its distinct canoe-shaped pods. Twisted and wrinkled orange and gold flowers resembling discarded cocktail napkins littered the grounds. Soon enough, juvenile trees started growing closer and closer to the house.

The Spathodea campanulata, better known as the African tulip tree, is an aggressive flower tree. It manages to outcompete native species. And the tree grows remarkably fast.

The trouble doesn’t end there. Ask anyone who lives close to a large African tulip tree (they have been reported to grow has high as 80 feet in some parts of the world) and they will be ready to describe the hazards of falling branches after they decay.

As the name strongly suggests, the African tulip tree hails from Africa — West Africa near Lake Victoria to be precise. It first came to the islands in the later part of the 19th century. World-renowned botanist William Hillebrand bears the distinction of being the first to plant the African tulip in Hawaii. But the species that has come to take over most of windward Maui was brought over a little more than a century ago by Joseph Rock, the resident botanist at the University of Hawaii.

Dubbed the “flame of the forest,” the African tulip tree was introduced as an ornamental addition to gardeners and arborists. The bright-orange flowers certainly catch the eye. But that still did not explain why the easy-traveling seeds were spread throughout the territory in the 1920s and ’30s by air. It is believed that 30,000 trees were planted on Maui alone.

Decades later we find ourselves with quite a problem. The beautiful tree is a fast-growing menace. It doesn’t need a lot of shade and it can grow as much as 2 inches in diameter a year. The way the tree spreads is also problematic. Its pods release paper-thin flakes that blow in the slightest breeze. Once it takes over a spot of the forest, it will quickly outcompete native inhabitants like the ohia and maile plants.

Hawaii isn’t alone in this. Parts of Australia have declared the African tulip tree invasive and listed it in its Biosecurity Act of 2014. That means that it cannot be given away, sold or released without a permit. The Australians also require handlers to reduce its spread through manual removal and herbicide.

And, like the Aussies, our own Maui Invasive Species Committee has deemed the African tulip tree a threat. So, how can we help stop the invasion?

For starters, the MISC urges all of us to stop planting them on our own. While we don’t have strict regulations, MISC encourages removing them by hand or through an incision point application of herbicide.

There are other uses to the tree. Locals in West Africa have used its bark for drums and small tools. Its leaves have some medicinal qualities too. And in the Philippines, it’s been used as plywood. But the wood is pretty soft and it hasn’t been used too much here on Maui.

Perhaps it is time to experiment and see if any use can come from this extravagant invasive tree.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateof “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”