Story by Janice Crowl
Photo by Jack Wolford
When naturalist and champion of redwood trees John Muir visited Honolulu in 1904, he was a few years too early to see Island redwoods. The USDA Forest Service planted 130,000 redwood trees from 1927 to 1959 on Kaua‘i, Maui, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu and Hawai‘i Island. Most were coast redwoods, though a few were giant sequoia. Many didn’t survive, but some are still thriving in the warm temperatures and cool mists at six-thousand-foot elevation — a phenomenon unheard of in California, where redwood forests rarely grow above three thousand feet.
Hawai‘i’s trees are comparatively young —some of the redwoods on the West Coast are older than two thousand years — and they’re not nearly as tall as a specimen like the 379.1-foot redwood in Northern California, the world’s tallest known tree. But Hawai‘i’s redwoods are still awe-inspiring and not only because they’re so unexpected. To see them for yourself, you can take the 1.7-mile Redwood Trail at Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area on Maui, where the Islands’ tallest redwoods (about two hundred feet) are growing, or you can walk through groves near Volcano, Holualoa and Keanakolu on the slopes of Mauna Kea. Like their continental counterparts, Hawai‘i’s redwood forests are carpeted with soft duff, and you can hear the same gentle susurrus when the tradewinds blow through the canopy. What’s different are the native ‘ohi‘a and hapu‘u ferns growing among Volcano’s redwoods and the melodious arias of native honeycreepers rather than the squawking of Steller’s jays.
Why were redwoods planted in Hawai‘i? Prior to the 1960s the Forest Service introduced an assortment of fast-growing exotic trees, including redwoods, to quickly re-establish watersheds denuded by logging in the 1800s. But don’t get your hopes up about using the wood for a furo or siding for your home. Hawai‘i redwood trees yield low-grade lumber at best, wood that’s also probably not as rot- and bug-resistant as California redwood. It’d be hard to harvest the trees anyway, as most are in state forest reserves. You’re better off being content with a picnic and a peaceful stroll among Hawai‘i’s redwood stands. As John Muir wrote, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”