Jacaranda trees upcountry maui

Trees of Maui – Sandalwood

Trees of Maui – Sandalwood

As a photographer I have always loved trees.  Living on Maui for close to 20 years I have seen and photographed hundreds of different kinds of trees.  It is my job to then figure out what they are in order to caption the images.  As I work mostly in the visitor industry, I am often on assignment for Maui tour companies. I have learned an incredible amount about Maui’s flora and fauna from having a tour guide along to answer any questions I may have.  This has been invaluable because I can always look up what kind of tree I’ve just photographed but to hear first hand the story of WHAT and WHY these trees are here and what they where used for in old Hawaiʻi is always fascinating to me.  Here are some of my favorite trees and their stories.


Sandalwood of Maui Hawaiʻi

A young Hawaiian Sandalwood tree and it’s watering jug signal this species return to upcountry Maui for the first time in over 200 years

 The story goes that the sandalwood trade began in the early 1800’s shortly after the discovery of the islands by Captain Cook.  At that time the slopes of Haleakala from sea level to the tree line at about 8000’ elevation were completely covered by a 3 layered rainforest canopy of diverse trees made up mainly of sandalwood.  The tree is believed to be root parasitic in that it grows and and spreads in association with other trees such as the native Koa and Ohi’a trees.  This created a dynamic forest which captured moisture coming off the ocean, created it’s own cloud layer which created a vibrant cloudforest.  The captured rain created the deep gulches and valleys of Haleakala’s leeward slopes which Hawaiians terraced for growing sweet potato and taro.  The remnants of this forest, some of which is overgrown with eucalyptus, can still be seen today.

Upcountry Maui Haleakala Ranch

Stone terraces dot the landscape at Haleakala Ranch

By 1811 trade ships began arriving regularly in Hawaiʻi which were mainly British and they had a thriving sandalwood business with the Chinese. By trading guns, cannons, and ammunition with Kamehameha for the rights to harvest the sandalwood trees Kamehameha was then able to use these weapons to invade first Maui and subsequently the rest of the island chain (except for Kauaʻi which agreed to his authority) thus uniting them under his rule.  From Oʻahu he continued to trade with the British until his death in 1819.  His son, Kamehameha ll fell into debt with the sandalwood traders and the first general tax in Hawaiʻi was imposed.  This relationship with the British is why the Hawaiian flag has the Union Jack on it and why the first modern Hawaiian government was established as a British type monarchy.  By 1830 the Sandalwood trade collapsed as the forests on every island were clear cut and even burned to find the last trees by smell which resulted in the loss of all remaining seedlings and left only the most remotely inaccessible areas as the last remnants of a once great and expansive ecosystem.ancient Hawaiʻi etching

One of first zipline courses in the country is in upcountry Maui. Skyline Eco-adventures started in 2002 and one of their goals as a company was and still is native reforestation.  I was hired to shoot the tour and the planting efforts performed by local volunteer youth groups.  They have now planted well over 300 koa trees along the course and in 2010 they somehow got their hands on a sandalwood sapling.  To see it in the ground was inspiring considering it has been well over 180 years since a sandalwood tree has been known to exist on the slopes of Haleakala.

Stay tuned for more stories about the wonderful and diverse forests and trees of Maui.

Aloha Nui Loa

3 replies
  1. Malia
    Malia says:

    Thank you for sharing this history. It makes me long to walk through one of those old Sandalwood forests. Wouldn’t that be something?

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    WOW! What a great post. It’s so important to understand the history of the nature that surrounds us. Thanks also for sharing the great photos while zilining/hiking with Skyline! ALOHA!

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