HALEAKALA - Three miles deep into the Waikamoi Preserve, through narrow dirt paths, across muddy streambeds in the midst of native plants centuries old, a giant stretches toward the sky farther than the eye can see.
The giant ohia lehua tree reaches more than 80 feet tall with a canopy of 108 feet and a diameter, or girth, just shy of 4 feet, according to measurements taken by students from Achievement Academy who hiked to the tree in December.
"It's the largest ohia I've seen here in the preserve for sure," said Pat Bily, a botanist with The Nature Conservancy who has been working to manage the preserve for nearly 24 years.
The Nature Conservancy botanist Pat Bily looks up at red lehua blossoms atop the 80-foot-tall ohia lehua tree in Waikamoi Preserve. Experts say the giant native tree could be up to 600 years old.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
The tree has been nominated for Exceptional Tree status by the Maui County Arborist Committee. The designation would bring recognition and add a layer of protection for the tree.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
Bily hikes through various parts of the 5,230-acre preserve at least a couple times every week, maintaining the trail, watching for endangered bird species and leading guided hikes for student groups. On a hike Tuesday morning, Bily told The Maui News that while he had always marveled at the size of this particular ohia tree, it was not until a University of Hawaii biologist visited the tree last year and estimated it could be 600 years old that Bily knew there was something extraordinary about the landmark.
"That means it had already been there for 400 years when Captain Cook arrived in the islands," Bily said, adding that ohia trees, as a native species, have been growing in Hawaii for hundreds of thousands of years.
Bily proposed that the tree be considered for Exceptional Tree status, a listing that would bring recognition as well as an extra layer of protection to safeguard it from injury or destruction.
An exceptional tree is a tree or a grove of trees with historic or cultural value, or which by reason of age, rarity, location, size, aesthetic quality or endemic status has been designated by ordinance as worthy of preservation, according to the Maui County Code.
The Maui County Arborist Committee, a nine-member body tasked with reviewing all nominations, unanimously approved conveying the status on the ohia tree in Waikamoi Preserve last year, though the official listing is pending Maui County Council approval.
There are 27 exceptional trees listed on Maui and two on Molokai, according to committee Chairwoman Kim Thayer.
"Some of these trees have stories behind them, or are just so impressive because they're so old or large. When one of our committee members went and saw this tree, he came back and said, 'This tree is amazing, it's so big I've never seen anything like it,' " Thayer said of the giant Waikamoi ohia.
She added that while most of the trees currently listed are at lower elevations in town or on someone's private property, this was growing in the wild on the slopes of Haleakala, which is also "something special."
An ohia tree, as its scientific name Metrosideros polymorpha (which means "many forms") suggests, can range in size from giant to shrub and can grow at sea level to elevations above 7,000 feet. Its lehua blossoms bloom red, orange, yellow, pink and myriad hues in between.
The trees also hold cultural significance for Hawaiians, Thayer said, stemming from an ancient legend about the goddess Pele. Pele, known for her passion and power, had taken a liking to a handsome young prince, Ohia, but the prince was already in love with a maiden named Lehua. When Ohia refused Pele, the goddess turned him into a twisted, ugly tree. Lehua was so heartbroken that she begged for help from other deities. Having pity on her, the gods turned her into a flower and put her on the ohia tree.
"That's why they say if you pull a lehua flower from an ohia tree, it'll rain because that's the weeping from separating two lovers," Thayer said.
Today, Hawaiians gather lehua blossoms and liko leaves for traditional and haku lei.
Bily said the tree, as one of thousands of ohia trees growing in the Waikamoi Preserve, plays a critical role in ensuring the 100,000-acre core forest area that makes up the East Maui Watershed continues to provide a reliable water supply for Maui County residents.
"Ohia trees are the dominant tree in this forest, they really utilize the water resources well, they circulate water through their system slowly and keep it here instead of running off into the ocean," Bily said.
The East Maui Watershed provides the island with about 60 billion gallons of water every year, and is the largest single source of surface water in the state. Most of the water supplies central Maui's large-scale agricultural industry and the residents and farms Upcountry via the county Department of Water Supply system, according to information circulated by the East Maui Watershed Partnership. The partnership consists of county, state and private organizations like Haleakala and Hana ranches, which have a vested interest in a healthy watershed system.
"Native plants (like those protected in the Waikamoi Preserve) are more effective at bringing water into our watershed and capturing moisture from the clouds. The vegetation helps keep moisture in the ground to be pumped into our aquifers instead of evaporating or running off into our streams and eventually our oceans," said Allison Borell, an education liaison with the East Maui Watershed Partnership.
Waikamoi Preserve is home to more than 530 varieties of native ferns, herbs, shrubs and trees. There are 74 rare species that may be found in the preserve, as well as 54 species that are endemic, or can only be found, on Maui. In addition, the East Maui area is home to 12 rare native bird species, including the critically endangered kiwikiu, or Maui Parrotbill, of which experts say there are fewer than 500 left in the world. The kiwikiu, along with the akohekohe and alauahio Hawaiian honeycreeper birds, can be found only in East Maui, and have been known to nest in tall ohia trees.
"Maintaining this ancient biodiversity that's been going on for millions of years is extremely important," Bily said. "The biodiversity here in Hawaii is extremely high per land mass compared to other parts of the world."
Bily said one of the most rewarding parts of his job is being able to pass on his knowledge and passion for native, endemic species to young learners, and share with them the importance of being good stewards of the land. He said more than 1,000 youths from various school groups and organizations visit the preserve every year and volunteer with various trail work.
A dozen students from Seabury Hall's Winterim Group visited the preserve last week to clear overgrown pahole fern, patch up parts of the trail and saw down invasive sugi pine trees. It was hard work, Bily said, but was a valuable learning experience for the high school students.
"This is such a unique habitat, we have to be stewards of it, and we all have to be vigilant," said Susan Pirsch, Seabury Hall guidance counselor and community service coordinator, who chaperoned the students Monday.
"I just love all the native plants, Waikamoi is such a beautiful place," student Jacob Keiper said. "It's like the greatest thing in the world to me."
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.