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.
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.
By 1811 trade ships began arriving regularly in Hawaiʻi and several sea captains were involved in a thriving sandalwood business with the Chinese. By trading guns, cannons, and ammunition with Kamehameha for the rights to harvest the sandalwood trees the King was able to acquire his own fleet of ships and modern armament thus solidifying his rule of the Kingdom of Hawaii. From Oʻahu he continued to trade with the British and Americans 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.
Kamehameha’s relationship with the British and the Americans may be why the Hawaiian flag is a combination of the Union Jack and red, white and blue stripes, thus appeasing both countries. The king was a shrewd but beloved leader who, by unifing the islands, brought peace to what some say was a 100 years war.
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. This deforestation 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.
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