Issue 11.1: February/March 2008

Trees of Life

story by Curt Sanburn

Pretty, finger-like Kane‘ilio Point stretches into the calm blue sea at Wai‘anae on O‘ahu’s leeward coast. The rocky spit of land cradles a big crescent beach that marks the southern reach of broad Poka‘i Bay, the historic heart of the district. Near the bay’s northern end, channelized Kaupuni stream empties through the sand, its mouth framed by twin concrete revetments. Landward, mottled green-and-brown mountain ridges plunge down from Ka‘ala to the rooftops and foliage of Wai‘anae town.

“This was one of the largest coconut groves in Hawai‘i,” says activist and arts promoter Daniel Anthony, 29, standing at the edge of the point and sweeping his arm across the view. “The grove was famous,” he says. “It extended 2 miles inland … it looked like Samoa.”

He tells me an ancient Wai‘anae mo‘olelo, a story about a seafaring Tahitian chief named Poka‘i who landed here more than a thousand years ago and planted one of the coconuts that came with him, somewhere along this beach.

“They say it was the first niu [coconut tree] in Hawai‘i … but I don’t know; check the archives.” Anthony stares across the bay. He grew up in a house just a few hundred yards from where we’re standing, raised by his grandparents. I scan the shore’s greenery. An occasional coconut frond glints in the sunlight, but the trees are few and far between and of no particular height—nothing, certainly, that suggests an old grove.

We drive into Wai‘anae town for another vantage point and stop in the parking lot between McDonald’s and Taco Bell, hard by the coastal highway and the concrete banks of Kaupuni stream. In the midday heat, dogs bark and doves coo, but nary a niu in sight.

“This was about where the middle of the grove was,” Anthony says, looking up and down the stream. “All along here, both sides, from the elementary school down to the bay. My grandfather told me it was choke coconuts around here, before it all got built up.”

In the 1980s, the massive new resort area of Ko Olina, 15 miles south, needed coconuts to give the parched acreage a more tropical feel. Contractors purchased hundreds of trees from area landowners, dug them up, and trucked them out of Wai‘anae.

“If you see coconut trees up here now, it’s usually in the beach parks, and most of those—the shorter ones—were transplanted from He‘eia on the Windward side for one of [former] Mayor Jeremy Harris’ beautification projects. If you didn’t know that, you would think they’re the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen; but if you know it, it’s like a pimple.”

Three years ago, Anthony decided to take action. He contacted his aunt, state Rep. Maile Shimabukuro, who introduced House Bill 2930 in the state Legislature in 2006. The bill called for a pilot program that would essentially allow the community to cordon off a patch of suitable state land in Wai‘anae and plant a new coconut grove that would grow naturally, a place where falling coconuts would be the norm and not a lawsuit waiting to happen. The public purpose? Providing access to coconut foodstuffs and other plant materials in keeping with the state’s constitutionally expressed commitment to traditional Hawaiian cultural practices and gathering rights.

But bureaucrats fretted about cost and liability, and the bill, which passed the House, did not survive the Senate. Anthony says he’ll try again.

“I just want to get it going,” the wiry and intense young man says. “You get around liability through education. I’m no expert, but you know, generations used to care for the groves—there was a science to it, a science built out of values, because they used the coconut tree to survive.”

Coconut trees and Hawai‘i are inextricably linked. The trees are as essential to Hawai‘i’s self-image as the northeast trade winds that perfect the climate and the aloha that softens the culture. Travel writers, photographers and videographers go nuts for the trees. Lovers swoon, watching moonlight play like quicksilver on tremulous overhead fronds.

Magazines turn them into sentinels: “Basking in the languid warm sunshine, the cocoanut palm has stood for generations at the post of honor by the broad portal of this earthly paradise,” Paradise of the Pacific magazine burbled in 1915. “Breathing the very spirit of the tropics it has come to be the symbol of true hospitality and stands ever ready to cast that magical spell that none can resist.”

Perhaps the ravishment can be explained by Hawai‘i’s gentle and temperate climate that allows the trees to grow taller and more gracefully than on other more be-stilled or storm-traumatized shores; or maybe it’s because the trees are fewer, and thus more conspicuous and singular. Or it might be the aforesaid trade winds, whose constancy sculpts the trees’ sinuous, counterpoised stems and lofts the clacking fronds into a most picturesque attitude, making them lean and sway, sigh and sing.

But all the purple prose in the world, as essentially true as it might be, won’t whitewash what’s been going on between Hawai‘i and its coconut trees: The fact is, they were carried to these islands by man and they never got far from his meddling, loving hands. While elsewhere in the tropics they are lauded as “the tree of life” or “the tree of heaven,” here in Hawai‘i they’re often carted around like so many potted houseplants and regularly clipped like poodles. And a 6-pound nut—or a 15-foot frond—dropping from 30 feet or more? In modern America, that’s real danger, a case-closed legal liability.

In 1950, a Honolulu resident sued the city for $15,000 after a bunch of coconuts fell from a tree on ‘Aukai Avenue and hit him on the head. He was hospitalized for two and a half months. The newspaper report noted that falling coconuts had “conked only four persons“ in the previous fifteen years. More tragically, a 2-year-old girl died in a Honolulu park in 1973 when a cluster of fifty-seven small coconuts fell on her during a diaper change. That horrifying accident remains Hawai‘i’s only recorded death by falling coconuts.

So, at a current cost of somewhere between $20 and $100 per tree, professional trimmers climb 30 or 50 or 70 feet up to chop out the plant matter that fountains out of the trees’ crowns: clusters of coconuts big and small; the long, woody pods called spathes; the waxy yellow flower spikes called spadix; and the constantly unfolding fronds. Trees are usually clipped two or three times a year. The expense, a built-in budget item for the average Hawai‘i hotel or beach park, discourages many other landowners from keeping the trees on their property, so they cut them down, or sell them and have them carted away to the newest resort or fancy subdivision.

Out of necessity, the trees have become ornamentals, neutered luxuries, while the number of adults who have actually husked a coconut and split open the shell, or who have tasted fresh coconut water (wai niu), dwindles. In fact, on O‘ahu you have to do some hunting just to gaze on a coconut tree in its natural state. At the very least, Daniel Anthony’s little crusade recognizes the realities that have befallen the niu since it first arrived in Hawai‘i more than a thousand years ago.

But Anthony’s concerns aren’t exactly new. In 1866, the Hawaiian-language newspaper Ka Nupepa Ku‘oko‘a published a letter from a man named Luhua, exhorting his fellow citizens of the Kingdom to plant more coconut trees. “In the early days,” he wrote, “when our ancient Chiefs were living, all of our beaches were beautiful with coconut groves. However, we, the new generation, are disinterested in the coconut palm, letting them fall down and practically vanish, those beautiful, magnificent groves of Hawai‘i.

“We should be ashamed,” the man wrote.

In the early 1950s, the influential civic watchdog group, the Outdoor Circle, launched a campaign to combat “depredations against Hawai‘i’s palm trees” caused by the rapacious tourist-trade demand for coconut hats. And, more existentially, in a 1999 essay, Honolulu-based scholar Vilsoni Hereniko used Waikiki’s castrated coconuts as a metaphor for the culturally adrift peoples of the Pacific, as “symbols of lost identity.”

Most experts believe that coconut trees are not native to Hawai‘i. They cite scientific evidence—disadvantageous ocean currents, a slightly cool climate—and the self-evident sparseness of the Islands’ trees. They also weigh the relatively limited use of the tree by Native Hawaiians, compared to other Pacific island cultures.

Eminent ethnobotanist Isabella Aiona Abbott, professor emerita at the University of Hawai‘i, says she believes that the trees were carried to the Islands by early Polynesian settlers, master colonizers of remote Pacific islands who brought their life-sustaining plants with them. For literary evidence, Abbott relates two ancient mo‘olelo: one from Hawai‘i island claiming that brothers from Tahiti planted the first coconuts in Hawai‘i, at Waha‘ula and Kalapana in the Puna district; and another from O‘ahu, the same story Daniel Anthony told, about chief Poka‘i’s first planting on the beach at Wai‘anae.

But Abbott avers that she cannot be sure and tells me that for years she likewise believed the hala, or pandanus tree, could not have found its way to Hawai‘i without man. But then, a few years ago, a petrified pandanus was found in a half-million-year-old lava flow on Kaua‘i.

“I was proved wrong,” she says with a scholar’s relish.

Anecdotal evidence of the domestic arrangement between Hawaiians and their coconut trees comes from 18th- and 19th-century sketches made by European and American visitors. These first-hand impressions often show a smattering of the trees rising close to the kauhale (house groups) of Hawaiian settlement, while outlying areas are largely barren of them. What appear to be important groves can be seen towering over settlements at Ka‘awaloa and Wai‘akea on Hawai‘i island; at Waikiki and Wai‘anae on O‘ahu; at Lahaina on Maui; and at Wailua and Waimea on Kaua‘i.

Hawaiians used coconut-husk fibers to make braided or twisted ‘aha, a tough, all-purpose cordage. The fronds became thatch; the leaflets became mats, baskets and fans. They turned coconut shells into containers, spoons and hula instruments, and hollowed out the stems (or trunks) to make big pahu (drums) and little canoes. Oil from roasted coconut meat was used as a body rub and rendered into perfumed dyes for kapa cloth. The men ate the pudding-like meat of younger, green nuts and the cream squeezed from the grated and soaked meat of fully ripe, year-old nuts. And, of course, fresh coconut water was an essential thirst-quencher. (A ripening green nut holds about a quart of the isotonic, electrolytic, fat-free liquid.)

But again, the drink was for men only: A strict kapu barred women from eating or using almost any part of the coconut tree, which was revered as an embodiment of the war god Ku. In one potent story, Keoua Ku‘ahu‘ula, the high chief of Ka‘u on Hawai‘i island, declared war on his cousin Kamehameha by cutting down several of Kamehameha’s coconut trees at Keomo, South Kona, in 1782.

In certain circumstances, Professor Abbott tells me, the ritual sacrifice of a whole coconut tree might placate the gods in lieu of a human sacrifice. “If the person who broke a kapu was himself an ali‘i [chief], then they could sacrifice somebody from the kaua [outcast or slave] population,” she says. “Or, lacking that, maybe a black pig, or, lacking that, a whole coconut tree.”

Stan Oka is Urban Forestry Administrator for the Department of Parks and Recreation, City and County of Honolulu. He’s directly in charge of the 9,000 coconut trees that festoon city roads and parks.

“Coconuts are really tough palms. That’s why we like them,” says the genial, Maui-born horticulturalist in his Kapi‘olani Park office. “We use them a lot in the landscape. They’re resilient and very well-adapted to urban areas. …” He pauses in mid-tribute. “Except they have coconuts.”

He smiles ruefully, then says he budgets about $360,000 annually (at $20 per tree trim) to clip the city’s coconuts twice every year.

Among Oka’s charges are the glorious old stands of coconuts in Kapi‘olani Park at the east end of Waikiki, particularly on the lawns fronting Queen’s Surf, the Natatorium and San Souci. Some of the trees are so tall, Oka says, more than 100 feet, that they must be about 100 years old.

Experts say that well-situated coconuts can live a century or more and reach heights up to 130 feet before they begin to senesce and die off. The stem weakens, the crown shrinks, nuts disappear and shortened fronds reduce in number, yellow and go limp. Left alone, the tree fizzles out like a dying firework. Oka says senescing trees can be a real danger to the men who must trim them, and that at some unscientific point they need to be removed.

“Every time I cut something down, it’s sad,” he says, “but the time that stands out in my mind was at San Souci beach a few years back when we had to take out some of those coconuts.” The mini-grove Oka refers to must be one of the most memorable (and photographed) sights in Honolulu. The double row of uniformly tall trees along the landward edge of the popular beach, with its subtle, shifting lines, makes for an irresistible silhouette at sunset.

“Those trees have been there for a long time,” Oka says. “They’ve seen a lot of change in the area. Taking them down is sad, because it’s the end of that. We’re not done with it yet, but guaranteed, we’re going to replenish what was there with a new generation coming up.” He says he’s always on the lookout for suitable, 30-to-40-foot replacements.

“We have to do it. It’s not an option. Otherwise, we end up with nothing.”

Up the beach about a half-mile, Waikiki proper faces a similar transition.

The ancient and historic Helumoa coconut grove that forested the seaside heart of Waikiki was said to encompass 10,000 trees. For centuries it marked O‘ahu’s seat of power, sheltering the estates of chiefs and an important heiau, with fishponds and kalo fields stretching far inland.

Kamehameha, Hawai‘i’s first king, set up his headquarters at Helumoa in 1795, at the mouth of ‘apuakëhau stream. He built a stone house and held sporting contests beneath the grove’s canopy. In the late 19th century, his descendant, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, willed the lands of Helumoa to a trust, and subsequent urbanization rapidly reduced the grove’s size.

In 1927, the fabulous pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel was built on the property’s key beachfront parcel. Its lawns were studded with remnant trees from the grove, and a few are still standing … in splendid isolation, blackened with age, impossibly tall, impossibly elegant and impossibly dangerous for the trimmers who have to climb them.

According to a hotel spokesperson, arborists have removed about a dozen of the venerable trees in the past few years. In order to preserve the grove’s genetics, they also collected nuts from a few younger trees that are believed to be descended from the original grove. Some of the nuts have germinated and are now little trees on the grounds.

Meanwhile, as part of a $100-million renovation, landscapers for the adjacent Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center recently imported 176, 20- to 40-foot nursery-raised coconuts to serve as a new focal point for the
complex and to be called the “Royal Grove.”

“What’s happened is that, for the past few decades, we’ve been enjoying a crop of coconuts that started up early in the 20th century, but we forgot to plant them ourselves,” says Steve Nimz, perhaps the most respected commercial arborist in the state. “The Polynesian way, as I understand it, is that when trees get to be 30 or 40 feet, they cut ’em down—and that’s it. But before they cut ’em down, they’re planting new trees right next door so you have what we call ‘companion plantings.’”

The Michigan native, raised on a fruit farm, began his career in Honolulu as a tree pruner and built up his company into a major player in the tree business. Now he’s a busy consultant with a side business transplanting trees of all kinds. “We move a lot of trees all over, everywhere,” he says over beers at a downtown watering hole. He tells me that buying and moving a big coconut tree costs between $1,500 and $3,000.

The first commercial transplanting of mature coconut trees occurred in downtown Honolulu in 1929, when young landscape architect Richard C. Tongg ordered the nighttime installation of five full-grown trees on the perimeter of Bishop Street’s then-new Alexander & Baldwin office building. The next day, the wondrous instant palms were the talk of the town.

I ask Nimz to name some great stands of coconuts on the island. He decides that the seaside residential strip of east Honolulu, from posh Kahala to posh Portlock, constitutes the biggest forest of coconut trees on the island. However, he says, many of the properties are old, closing in on the century mark—and so are the trees. Loathe to cut down their ageing coconuts and loathe to wait twenty years while germinating nuts grow into respectable replacements, property owners often call Nimz for help.

“It’s at a point where all I can tell them is that they’ve got to get companion plantings going,” he says, explaining that the tightly packed neighborhoods’ walls and overhead wires make trucking in 30- to 40-foot transplants difficult at any price.

“We need to get new trees of different sizes in there, so as the older trees weaken, they can be taken out without it looking terrible.”

We leave the Aloha Tower Marketplace and admire some of the extra-tall coconuts sprinkled along Ala Moana Boulevard, sailing on the light trade winds.

“You know, when I watch these trees in the wind, it blows my mind how much they move,” Nimz says, “and how strong they really are. It’s just amazing what they can do.”

Indeed. A 1992 news photo of Hurricane ‘Iniki’s catastrophic aftermath shows a stretch of Kaua‘i highway covered with flattened utility poles. “Like dominoes,” the caption says. Yet all around, coconut trees stand tall, if a little frazzled, their crowns more or less intact. Estimated wind speeds during the storm were 140 miles per hour with gusts as high as 175.

How do they do it? What about the physics of the tree? Research didn’t turn up much, other than statements about how the trees can sustain hurricane-force winds and how their strong, flexible stems are anchored into the ground by thousands of woody, tubular, pencil-thin roots that radiate out 20 to 100 feet from the base, 2 or 3 feet below the surface. It’s noted that the trees self-prune in very high winds, thereby reducing the drag forces that would otherwise topple them. And lastly, according to another Honolulu arborist who calls coconuts “the most misunderstood palm in the world,” there is the engineering of the fronds’ “leafstalks,” particularly the widened and very stiff petiole where frond meets stem. When winds push at a crown of radially anchored fronds, the torqued leafstalks have a “springboard” effect, he says, pushing the crown back into the wind.

Veteran gardener and newspaper columnist Heidi Bornhorst strides across the sunny, breezy lawns of Hale Koa in Waikiki wearing long pants, boots and a loose yellow silky shirt. Her thick hair is gathered up into a bright blue baseball cap. For the past 13 years, she has served as landscape director at Hale Koa (aka Fort DeRussy), the US military reservation covering 72 park-like acres sandwiched between the high-rises of Waikiki proper and the high-rises of Kalia.

“See this grove? These are at least 80 years old,” she says, looking up and admiring her pride and joy: a loosely arranged cluster of about twenty healthy-looking coconuts that hula up high into the sky at the busy intersection of Ala Moana Boulevard and Kalakaua Avenue.

“It’s called the Maluhia grove, which means peace,” she says as the trees rustle overhead.

“You can tell that they grew up from nuts sitting on this ground—see how the bases are wide, how they swell and curve out of the ground? That’s how we used to plant ’em, from nuts. Now everyone wants instant, so they just transplant. I can always tell which cocos grew in place.”

Bornhorst has a firm set of rules she follows for the 1,000 “cocos” (as she calls them) in her care: Water regularly. Minimize trimming and use experienced tree-trimmers, preferably the same ones over time.

“When cocos are young and short, go ahead and let ’em flower and set fruit,” she says. “They’re like humans—it takes about nine months to get a mature nut, like being hapai [pregnant]. But it also takes a lot to produce nuts, so they’re healthier and stronger, too.”

We talk about the mysteries that remain about coconuts—their ability to self-repair most wounds, their subtle genetic differences and anomalies, and the actual age the trees can attain.

She leads me to another little grove, this one at the entrance to the big, beachfront Hale Koa Hotel. There, right next to the lobby ramp, is a concrete planter up against the side of the building, offering a glimpse of paradise: A thicket of youngish, stocky coconut trees bearing full loads of glowing green and gold nuts, droopy fronds, spathes and spadix. The scene shocks me, and I stare. I tell her it reminds me of the feral trees I’ve seen along the sleepy, spring-fed backshores of the South Kona coast, at Honomalino or Ho‘okena.

“Or Keomuku, on the backside of Lana‘i,” she suggests.

She confesses to a few skirmishes with management about letting these trees go native, even though they’re safely away from the public behind the planter wall.

Jet-lagged hotel guests savor the sight, she says. Kids want to pick the nuts and send them home. Plus, her budget is in better shape without the trimming cost.

“Isn’t this a Hawaiian thing?” she asks as I continue to gawk. “It’s like you’re walking through old Hawai‘i.”

No, it’s 2007, but here at a Waikiki hotel, the sympathetic impulse to liberate some of Hawai‘i’s coconut trees has borne fruit.

Back in Wai‘anae, Daniel Anthony reports that he’s toying with a new plan to get some new groves started. This time, he says he’ll do it more strategically, by stirring up some competitive Island spirit and lobbying each of the state’s four counties to sponsor their own groves.

“I want to see who does it first,” he says. HH