ʻŌhiʻa lehua – A Native Tree and Blossom of Hawaii

ʻŌhiʻa lehua (oh-he ah lay-who-ah) – Metrosideros polymorpha – Native tree and Blossom of Hawaii

Metrosideros is a genus of an estimated 60 trees, shrubs and vines in the Myrtle family. Metrosideros is one of the most prevalent flowering plant genera in the Pacific. New Caledonia has 21 plant species in this genus, New Zealand has 12, New Guinea has 7 and Hawaii has 5. Metrosideros are also living on many other Pacific islands except for Micronesia or Australia for a reason scientists have not yet been able to figure out. The Philippines has one species of plant in this genus, Chile and Argentine do too and there is even one species of this genus as far as South Africa.

Hawaii is home to the Metrosideros polymorpha as it is known in the scientific community, ʻŌhiʻa lehua here in the Hawaiian Islands, or ʻŌhiʻa, or lehua depending to whom you are speaking. The tree is called ʻŌhiʻa and the blossoms are Lehua. There is a Hawaiian Legend explaining how these names came to be.

These resilient trees produce hardy seeds that are exceptionally light and can travel great distances by wind. They can germinate even after being frozen and are still viable after spending a month in salt water. This may be the reason that they are the most common native tree in Hawaii. These sacred Hawaiian trees adapt well to all sorts of soils and depending on the soil conditions ʻŌhiʻa lehua may grow as a tree over 80 ft high or remain a small ground covering shrub. The blossoms are usually red but may also be pink, yellow, orange or a creamy color. The tree has roughly textured bark covering the trunk.

Like the ‘Ohelo, the ʻŌhiʻa is a pioneer plant species. Meaning, it is one of the very first plants to take root in harsh substrates like lava fields, basalt, igneous rock,  or ash. It is even known to grow on mountain ridges exposed to all of the wind and elements without any protection. This tree grows in a variety of elevations from sea level all the way up to 7000 ft above sea level. Occasionally, the ʻŌhiʻa tree will grow aerial roots,  roots hanging down from its branches,  that do not touch the ground rather remain suspended for collecting moisture from the air. This is one adaptable plant.

 A pioneer species, makes other life forms in an area possible. the ʻŌhiʻa’s roots are fine and find their way deep into the smallest fissures or cracks in rocks and lava fields. The plants dropped leaves and flowers provide much needed moisture and sustenance to sustain other plant and animal species that otherwise would not stand a chance to survive in such harsh climates. The rough bark is home to small bugs, lichen, moss and epiphytes like orchids. The blossoms provide sweet nectar to bees and birds alike.  Pioneer species make harsh living conditions less harsh and more habitable.

The photo shown here is an ʻŌhiʻa lehua tree thriving beautifully in Pele’s harsh volcanic landscape.