History of the Trees of Maui – Sandalwood

Shaka and Plumeria tree shadow
History of the 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 capture the images.  As I work mostly in the visitor industry. I am often on assignment with a tour and love having a tour guide to answer any questions I may have.  This has been invaluable because I can look up what kind of tree or plant this or that may be but to hear first hand the story of HOW and WHY these trees are here and what they are used for 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 in association with other trees such as Koa and Ohi’a.  This created a dynamic forest which captured moisture coming off the ocean to create a vibrant rainforest.  The captured rain created the deep gulches and valleys that we see today.

By 1811 trade ships began arriving regularly in Hawaii 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 Kauai which agreed to his authority) thus uniting them under his rule.  From Oahu 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 Hawaii 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.

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


It was a wonderful experience, all the way around. Thank you for the chance to see and learn so much about you island. Mahalo.


I would not have enjoyed this trip doing it ourselves!

Anne & Greg

My wife and I took the Road to Hana Tour on Friday January 9th. It was TREMENDOUS!

Tom & Janie

I enjoyed the trip very much. I would give this driver, tour guide a 5 star rating.!!!! It was wonderful!!