Story by Alexander Salkever
Photos by Jack Wolford
We’re on a ridge high above O‘ahu’s Kuli‘ou‘ou Valley. Extreme winds, driving rain, steep drops. “This is a little above my pay grade,” I stammer to the slender woman guiding me up the unmarked trail. Ahead lies a fifty-foot stretch along a razor-thin ridge with calamitous drops on both sides. The mist-slick trail is maybe eighteen inches wide. The native forest growing on the highest ridges of the Ko‘olau surrounds us. Ahead lie steep slopes full of magnificent ‘ohi‘a trees, including types not yet named, a biological treasure trove that might hold clues to the origin of the species. But first we have to get across this stretch.
My guide is patient but eager to get up the hill. Elizabeth Stacy is a lithe blond forest sprite with boundless energy. She’s also a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and one of the world’s foremost experts on the Metrosideros family of trees, locally known as ‘ohi‘a. She gamely offers to turn around rather than leave me here alone on the ridge while she forges on. “I think I can make it,” I say. “Does it get worse?”
“I don’t think so,” she replies, “but I didn’t remember it being this narrow, either.” In a flash she’s gone, over the ridge and clambering up the ropes dangling from the precipice on the far side. Stacy’s fleet, but she’s also fallen victim to her enthusiasm. The bump on her nose? From tumbling backward off a trail on Mount Ka‘ala. Her limp? A broken foot from sliding off this same steep, unmarked trail. Her other limp? Tendonitis of the knee that flares when she climbs. “I know I should stop and let my body recover, but I just don’t have any time,” she says. “There is so much to do.”
That’s because Stacy is a woman on a mission: She’s the ‘Ohi‘a Hunter of Hawai‘i, and she is seeking answers to one of the great questions of biology: How do new species emerge?
In Hawaiian mythology the story of the ‘ohi‘a tree and its pompom-like lehua blossom goes something like this: ‘Ohi‘a and Lehua were young lovers. But Pele, the volcano goddess, fell for the striking ‘Ohi‘a. When she sought his affection, however, faithful ‘Ohi‘a rejected her. So Pele, in a jealous rage, turned him into a tree. Lehua cried and cried over her lost lover. Out of pity the other Hawaiian gods transformed her into a beautiful, feathery blossom that hung on the branches of the ‘ohi‘a tree, so the couple would be forever united. This myth is well known in the Islands; it’s frequently been told through hula kahiko (ancient hula). It’s often said even today that when one picks a red lehua blossom, rain will follow because the lovers have become separated.
What drew Stacy to the ‘ohi‘a, though, had nothing to do with legends; she was amazed by its sheer ubiquity. “It is such a dominant species,” says Stacy. The trees thrive in barren lava deserts, where their gossamer-thin roots find buried moisture, and in highland bogs, where they grow in dwarf forms. For native birds, land snails and insects, ‘ohi‘a are welcome but fastdisappearing shelter. While ‘ohi‘a are not endangered or even threatened, most of the once-vast tracts where they were predominant have largely been displaced by invasive tree species. And genetically scientists consider ‘ohi‘a to be a “messy” family, with numerous hybrids and species —a fascinating Gordian knot for an evolutionary biologist to try and untie.