Story by Alan McNarie
Photo by Elyse Butler
At the southern edge of Volcano Village on the Big Island lies an ecological rarity: a lush, 200-year-old patch of native rain-forest unspoiled by glory bush, kahili ginger or other alien species that have invaded forests across the Islands. Few such primeval forests remain, even in nearby Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Fewer still are so accessible.
The Niaulani forest was once home to the state’s Kilauea Ranger Station, which protected it from the ranching and charcoal-making operations that damaged much of the surrounding forest. When Volcano Art Center took over the station in 1997 to build its new headquarters and educational campus, it signed a covenant to preserve the remaining forest. A short, easy trail winds through the four-acre tract, and signage highlights the many native plants, from massive 75-foot-tall koa and ‘ohi‘a trees to delicate mosses, lichens and tiny ferns covering the trunks in such profusion that every tree is like a little forest in itself.
Every Monday at 9:30 a.m., volunteers lead visitors on a free tour of the forest’s treasure trove of native plants. Giant hapu‘u pulu tree ferns, with their golden “fur” or pulu, grow alongside the rarer hapu‘u ‘i‘i, which have stiff, bristly hairs instead of pulu; sometimes towering above both, slender and graceful, are even rarer meu ferns. In their shade grow all types of smaller ferns: shrub-sized ‘ama‘u, viny uluhe, delicate, foot-tall ho‘i‘o. Visitors frequently hear the distinctive whirring of ‘apapane wings as the scarlet-colored native birds flit among the ‘ohi‘a trees, feeding on their red blossoms.
Amanda Spaur, who coordinates the tours, notes that the forest walk attracts a different kind of visitor. “People are genuinely interested in knowing what Hawai‘i really is,” she says. “It feels like everyone you share it with is gaining from the experience.” Those who can’t make the Monday tour can still explore the forest with a tour brochure, available in the Volcano Art Center’s main building.