Issue 16.6: Dec. 2013 / Jan. 2014

The Great Ones

Story by Janice Crowl
Photo by Jack Wolford

Seen any big, beautiful trees in Hawai‘i? They could be “champion” trees, meaning the biggest known example of their species. This year American Forests, the oldest nonprofit conservation organization in the United States, recognized six Hawai‘i trees as champions, bringing to ten the number of Island trees to make American Forest’s national list of 780 Big Tree Champions.

It’s not easy to become an official Big Tree Champion. You have to survive decades of storms, drought and disease; you have to out-compete invasives and evade loggers. It’s also not enough to be the tallest; you score points for trunk circumference and “crown spread,” a measurement of the bough. And if you happen to be a native Hawaiian tree, it’s even harder to get huge: “A lot of native tree species have the tendency to grow quite slowly, and many of them just don’t reach the gigantic proportions that non-native trees do,” says Hannah Bergemann, Hawaii Big Trees program coordinator with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “And then a lot of the native trees that do have the potential to grow large, such as koa, ‘ohi‘a and sandalwood, are often harvested before they reach their maximum height.” Until 2011 American Forests didn’t even allow most of Hawai‘i’s important tropical trees to be candidates because they have no competition in the other forty-nine states.

Now that the American Forests criteria has changed, Hawai‘i’s got some impressive champions: hau, koa, manele, ‘a‘ali‘i, kolea, wiliwili, olopua, papalakepau and mamane. If those don’t sound familiar, it might be because they’re endemic, not found anywhere else in the world. But Hawai‘i does have at least one champion that isn’t endemic: a 112-foot-tall coconut palm in Hawai‘i Kai. Sorry, Florida.

For Bergemann the most awe-inspiring champion is the 115-foot koa in the Kona Hema Preserve on Hawai‘i Island. It’s a survivor: The entire area around it was clear-cut more than one hundred years ago, and by luck the tree grew in an inaccessible gulch. Now it’s re-growing the forest of which it was once part. “That tree is the seed tree of all the trees around it,” says Sheri Mann, DOFAW forestry manager. “The Nature Conservancy took over, and now the forest is coming back to the glory of what it used to be.”