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Plant Stories- Na Mo'olelo ‘ŌHI‘A LEHUA

Our latest story from Tiki's Lindsey Ke'ala Wong.

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You may have noticed a few plants on your morning or evening stroll alongside the famous shoreline at Waikīkī. These plants appear only to be decor to complement the dull colors of the city, but, they aren’t just a vibrant splash of color in our world, they are our world. Our native plants, that which inhabited the islands before people, are the original settlers and created a history that the seafarers recognized and learned from. Plants provide life and teach life. You just have to be very quiet to understand what they are saying.

Long-long ago when gods and goddesses shaped the earth, a man and a maiden indulged in a love that will last centuries:
On the island of Hawai‘i in the district of Puna, a young chiefess by the name of Lehua shared the beauty of the moon. She was noticed by a handsome chief, ‘Ōhi‘a. He is said to have legs as long and strong as a forest tree with a face whose smile radiated like the glowing sun. ‘Ōhi‘a courted Lehua with so much passion that it was not long before the two became husband and wife.

Often, ‘Ōhi‘a played his nose flute in the gentle evening light and let his melody echo through the forest and into Lehua‘s ears. Her cheeks blushed as she followed the whispers of his flute. Never far behind Lehua was her ‘aumakua (family guardian), a little red bird known as the ‘apapane. In the forest, the lovers lay and watched the stars span the sky. Meeting in the mountains was a usual setting for the couple’s fraternizing, however one day, the couple was not alone. As ‘Ōhi‘a set his lauhala mat between the trees, he noticed a young and beautiful maiden peering from behind a shrub. ‘Ōhi‘a never paid much mind to her and awaited Lehua‘s arrival. Another evening, ‘Ōhi‘a played his nose flute for Lehua. He recognized the same beautiful maiden staring from beyond some trees. Again, very kindly, he ignored her presence and enjoyed the dusk with Lehua under the stars. On another evening, the stranger appeared yet again. This time she called out to ‘Ōhi‘a and asked him to come away with her. ‘Ōhi‘a politely declined her offer, even when the beautiful stranger revealed her true identity as Pele, the goddess of the fiery volcano. Knowing of her powers, ‘Ōhi‘a still resisted her offer and threats. Lehua arrived and ‘Ōhiʻa wrapped his arms around her, holding her close.

Peleʻs jealousy grew and the ground began to quake. Lava and flames protruded from the earth’s core and surrounded the couple. As the flames grew closer in and higher up, ‘Ōhi‘a lifted Lehua over his shoulders to save his love from the unforgiving blaze. But the red and yellow sparks caught on to her long wavy hair. The ‘apapane quickly darted off to tell the forest gods of what was happening, but the gods were unable to free the couple of Pele’s rage as they only had control over the plants and their growth. And so the gods chanted as thunder struck the skies. As ‘Ōhi‘a stood firm he could feel his burning flesh change into bark and his body stiffen from the legs up while still holding Lehua overhead; Lehua was suddenly replaced by little red and yellow flowers that resemble the flames of Pele’s wrath.

Since then, the ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua tree has dropped many seeds and sprouted many offspring around the Hawaiian archipelago. This magnificent native endemic species has become critical in Hawai‘i’s prosperity. ‘Ōhi‘a is the first large living organism to grow out of a barren field of lava. Its ability to set roots in the rocky basalt environment makes Hawai‘i a flourishing habitat for all species. The growing roots set the stage by breaking up the basalt, creating soil, which allows other kinds of plants to make their homes. The misty rain is gathered by the tops of the tree and is directed down into the earth where lava tubes hide. In these tunnels is where the finely filtered rain water from the surface accumulates for years on years, and develops into aquifers. The fresh water from below is naturally siphoned up, seeping through the earth’s exterior by springs.

Legend has it, if you pick the Lehua blossom from the tree, separating the lovers, the spirits of the forest weep, bringing the rain. “Legends teach us many things, and even a simple legend, like that of ‘Ōhi‘a and Lehua can teach us about natural history, botany, and weather systems. (Leilehua Yuen; Ke Ola Magazine, 2016)”

Look out: While walking on the beach side of Kalākaua St., ‘Ōhi‘a can be found near the manmade pond in front of the Honolulu Police Department (Ewa side of Duke Kahanamoku monument). At least, this is where I noticed an attempted propagation of ‘ōhi‘a in Waikīkī in 2018. The tree did not look as if it was thriving, but newly planted and full of leaves and hope, and he may still be there today. If you know of other sightings in Waikīkī of this treasured tree, please let us know at: events@tikisgrill.com

This love story has been told many times by many people and in many different ways. Youʻve just read a retold version of Leilehua and her Nana, Thelma Yuenʻs family version.