Tree of Heaven
Story By: Shannon Wianecki
Photos By: Josh McCullough
The scent hit me the minute I stepped out of my car. Beneath the hot sugar of malasadas frying inside the Punalu‘u Bake Shop, I caught a more sultry fragrance—woodsy, hypnotic and unmistakable.
Following my nose to the Nā‘ālehu farmers market, I found the source. Between booths laden with vegetables and homemade jams sat a man selling beautifully carved wooden letter openers, hair picks and bags of incense. Aromatic smoke curled from a pile of sawdust smoldering in a pot. The man’s sign read: “Hawaiian Sandalwood. Sustainable Harvest.”
He didn’t have business cards and wouldn’t share his phone number. When I asked where the sandalwood came from, he told me he’d felled it on his own ten acres in nearby Miloli‘i, bucked it with a chainsaw and hauled it out piece by piece. He was friendly and full of facts about this rare Hawaiian hardwood. What he was doing was perfectly legal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d stumbled across something illicit, like rhinoceros horn or turtle meat. “Sandalwood” and “sustainable” are words not often paired.
For thousands of years, spiritual aspirants in the Far East have used sandalwood in rituals to connect to the divine. To this day Hindus smear fragrant sandalwood paste onto their foreheads before meditating. Buddhists count prayers on sandalwood beads. Carvers turn the soft, sweet-smelling wood into cabinets, toys and sacred statues. Ayurvedic doctors prescribe sandalwood oil to cure skin conditions, while the Kama Sutra praises its aphrodisiac powers. Sandalwood is reputed for both calming passions and stirring them. In Hawai‘i it has mostly done the latter.
The world’s most coveted sandalwood species, Santalum album, comes from India, but there are other sandalwoods native to Australia, Fiji, Indonesia and Hawai‘i. In fact, the Hawaiian archipelago is home to six sandalwood species—all of which occur nowhere else on earth—representing a third of the genus’ diversity. Santalum trees produce santalols, powerful compounds that give the wood its potent aroma and medicinal properties. But santalols are present only in the heartwood, not the bark or leaves. To get a whiff you must cut down the tree.
Therein lies the trouble. Throughout the tropics the sandalwood trade has been marked by over-consumption and outright theft. To satisfy international demand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka wiped out their native sandalwood forests. The world’s biggest suppliers, India and Australia, battle poachers; thieves stole as much as 90 percent of India’s harvest in 2012. But nowhere has the sandalwood trade so deeply affected the society as in Hawai‘i.
When Captain James Kendrick anchored the Lady Washington off of Kaua‘i in 1791, he found Hawaiians perfuming kapa (bark cloth) with shavings from the ‘iliahi tree. The American privateer immediately recognized ‘iliahi as sandalwood—a hot commodity in China. Kendrick sent three sailors ashore to collect as much wood as they could find. At first Chinese merchants rejected Hawaiian sandalwood as inferior, but by 1805 shipments of ‘iliahi were turning significant profits in Canton.
Sandalwood became the Islands’ first major export. The trade—which lasted just thirty years—was swift and devastating for the forests and for the people of Hawai‘i. At the time of Western contact, the Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs) were at war. Kamehameha I, who was then rising in power, established a monopoly on sandal- wood. The abundant natural resource gave him the means to purchase ships, cannons and guns.
This new commodity ushered in an era of commerce that unraveled the Hawaiians’ centuries-old subsistence lifestyle. Traders measured sandalwood in piculs, equal to 133.3 pounds—the weight a man could carry. A picul of sandalwood fetched an average of $10 in China, in an era when a dollar bought fifty pounds of beef or four hundred pounds of sweet potatoes. During the height of the sandalwood trade, historians estimate that Hawaiian men carried at least one hundred thousand piculs of lumber out of the mountains.
Sandalwood harvesters were nicknamed kua leho (callus back) after the calluses they developed from hauling logs down from the mountain. They dug pits in the forest the size of ship’s hulls to measure what they needed to harvest. A few of these lua moku ‘iliahi (sandalwood pits) remain as testament to bygone forests, one in Kamiloloa on Moloka‘i and another on the Kapālama Nu‘uanu ridge on O‘ahu.
By 1810 Kamehameha had vanquished his foes and essentially united the Islands under single rule. According to Native Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau, when the king saw that his people were suffering from famine, he ordered the sandalwood harvesters to return to their farms and fishponds. He placed a kapu (restriction) on young sandalwoods to allow the forest to regenerate. After Kamehameha died in 1819, his son and successor, Liholiho, was ill prepared for his new role as monarch. He canceled the kapu on sandalwood and allowed other ali‘i to trade, which proved disastrous. Hawaiian royals began using credit, an utterly foreign concept. By 1826 their debts surpassed $200,000, prompting the kingdom to enact its first written law. The sandalwood tax required every Hawaiian man to provide half a picul of sandalwood or pay four Spanish dollars. The debts weren’t settled until 1843.
Several foreigners in Hawai‘i during this era commented on the spectacle of thousands of Hawaiians leaving the forest bearing wood on their backs. In April 1830 Rev. Peter Johnson Gulick wrote from Kaua‘i: “Felt distressed and grieved for the people who collect sandalwood. They are often driven by hunger to eat wild and bitter herbs, moss, etc. And though the weather is so cold on the hills that my winter clothes will scarcely keep me comfortable, I frequently see men with no clothing except the maro [malo, or loincloth]. Were they not remarkably hardy, many of them would certainly perish.” By 1840 the sandalwood supply was exhausted, and the sea captains had turned to a new commodity: whales.
Hawaiian sandalwood faded from the collective consciousness over the ensuing years. The once-prized trees grew so rare that many Islanders came to believe they were extinct, but they are not. Though the world has forgotten them, the trees still exist, and on one Hawai‘i hillside they exist in great number. But now, once again, humans are intent on harvesting them—and the trees face other threats, too: fire, drought, sheep, rats. When the elder trees go, will another generation of ‘iliahi take root in the Islands?
If you know what to look for, you’ll find sandalwoods throughout Hawai‘i. The trees have bluish, almost jadeite green leaves and clusters of minuscule, star-shaped flowers. Each of the main Hawaiian Islands has its own species. Kaua‘i, the oldest island, has two: the red-flowered Santalum pyrularium and S. involuted. On O‘ahu the windswept ridges of Wai‘anae are home to a few old S. freycinetianum trees, while the rare and stately S. haleakalae populates small pockets of forest on Maui, Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i. Coastal sandalwood, or ‘iliahi alone (S. elliptical), is a smaller, shrubbier species found at low elevations on all of the main islands. But the archipelago’s largest and most abundant sandalwoods inhabit its youngest island, Hawai‘i.
High above the waters of South Kona, reaching up the slope of Mauna Loa, is a wide swath of land marked on a 1905 territorial map as Sandalwood Forest. It’s the home of S. paniculatum, the fragrant, green-flowered species endemic to the Big Island. Kamehameha Schools, the largest private landowner in Hawai‘i, owns 120,000 mauka (mountainside) acres from Kealakekua north to Pōhakuloa; this includes the bulk of the historic sandalwood forest.
When I ask to visit, Kamehameha Schools sends along its entire natural resource management team: five people, including two managers from O‘ahu. I expect suits; instead I am met with young, fresh faces. Ecologist Nāmaka Whitehead gives me the lay of the land as we rumble up the mountain. Tropical foliage gives way to the distinctive shape of the Hawaiian dry forest: spindly, thick-barked trees that have evolved to maximize moisture. Plants in this parched terrain rely on lilinoe, fine mist, rather than rain—though at nearly six thousand feet in elevation, snow flurries aren’t unheard of. Today it’s sunny and clear, the summits of Hualālai and Mauna Kea visible in the distance. Before long we’re in the world’s largest, most intact Hawaiian sandalwood forest.
Towering koa trees cast lacy shadows on the hard lava plain. Yellow-blossomed māmane dangle twisted pods bursting with neon orange seeds. Growing amid this bounty are more sandalwoods than I can count. I press my nose up to their flowers. A flirtatious ‘elepaio chatters from the canopy of the tallest ‘iliahi I’ve ever seen. While sandalwoods typically top out at thirty feet in height, the tallest trees here approach sixty-five.
We sit down for a picnic in this idyllic grove, and Whitehead explains that the seeming paradise is fraught with problems. “The last few years, the droughts have been longer and more severe. The plants up here are adapted to dry conditions but not this dry.” Climate change is weakening an already embattled ecosystem. For over a century this mountainside has been grazed to a nub by cattle, sheep and pigs—the bane of native Hawaiian forests. Even as we sit talking, a caramel tide of feral sheep disappears around the bend, their bellies likely full of tender plant shoots. Whitehead and the others on the team say they seek to be effective and successful stewards of this forest. They’re partnering with the Three Mountain Alliance and Silversword Foundation to fence ten thousand acres and remove the animals. So far they’ve fenced a six-thousand-acre parcel called Lupea.
“We recognize that healthy functioning ecosystems are a vital component of the Hawaiian lifestyle and well-being. Without them we lose our identity,” says Whitehead. “I Hawai‘i no na Hawai‘i i ka ‘āina: We are who we are because of the land.” But the team also says that Kamehameha Schools, as powerful as it is, doesn’t have the resources necessary to tackle reforestation on its vast acreage. Fencing just the six-thousand-acre Lupea section was a multimillion-dollar endeavor. Preserving rare forest species, the KS workers say, has to make financial sense. To that end the team employs not only an ecologist, but also a forester, Kama Dancil. Their goal is to blend restoration with commercial opportunity—and fast. “The forest is in big trouble,” says Whitehead. “If we wait another generation, it will really be challenging.”
Wade and Jeff Lee are Kamehameha Schools’ neighbors; they purchased 2,800 acres of forest adjacent to Lupea in 2010. As soon as the ink on the deed was dry, the brothers began felling sandalwoods and selling the timber to China, Dubai and Sri Lanka. It’s likely the largest sandalwood harvest Hawai‘i has seen in two centuries. Over the last four years, the Lees’ company, Hāloa ‘Āina, has shipped out a thousand metric tons of sandalwood. Wade Lee estimates that there are another 3,579 tons of living and dead wood on the property.
On a tour of the site, I can smell the production shed before we reach it: The air is perfumed with a haunting blend of sweet wood and diesel fuel. Shaved, pinkish logs are stacked outside the open-air shed. Inside, heaps of fragrant sawdust surround a giant distillation tank. The Lees use every bit of each sandalwood tree. The santalol-rich roots and heartwood are processed into essential oil, the highest-value product. Hāloa ‘Āina also sells hydrosol, carving logs, sapwood and powder. Even spent chips, wood that’s been processed for oil, is sold to soap and incense makers.
The Four Seasons Resort Hualālai, just a few miles down the coast, uses Hāloa ‘Āina’s powder in spa treatments. Floracopeia and DoTerra buy the oil. But Aura Cacia, the nation’s largest essential-oil company, won’t do business with Hāloa ‘Āina. Its parent company, Frontier Co-op, can’t yet determine whether the Lees’ harvesting practices will support the trees’ long-term survival. Frontier Co-op’s researcher, Tim Blakley, says basic questions about Hawaiian sandalwood’s history and life cycle haven’t been answered; without data, the fledgling industry is operating in the dark.
The question marks haven’t deterred Kamehameha Schools. It recently partnered with the Lees to conduct small-scale harvest trials on two hundred of its acres. The Lees maintain that the goal of Hāloa ‘Āina isn’t logging but reforestation. They claim to harvest only dead and dying sandalwoods, of which there are many. Wild ungulates have decimated the forest understory here, too, and the trees are stressed by drought: In the 1960s this area received almost fifty inches of rain per year; now it ekes by with just twenty-four. Fire is a constant threat. A weeks-long wildfire scorched this mountainside in 2010. The scent of burning sandalwood was intoxicating—and excruciating to those who recognized it. Wade Lee’s first priority as landowner was to install fire extinguishers on every half-acre.
The brothers haven’t finished fencing the property, but they have made a dent in the population of grazing animals. Once the acreage is fully fenced and ungulate-free, koa and māmane will regenerate but the sandalwoods won’t. Their fleshy, purple fruits are candy to rats, which devour the seeds before they can hit the ground and germinate. Hāloa ‘Āina compensates for the rats by outplanting sandalwood starts grown in its nursery. But mostly its reforestation plan relies on coppicing—reproduction through root shoots that remain in the soil when a sandalwood tree is yanked out; those shoots (ideally) become new trees. Everywhere I look at Hāloa ‘Āina, blue plastic tubes poke out of the earth at odd angles. Designed to boost water capture, fend off sheep and diffuse ultraviolet light, these sheaths swaddle young sandalwoods. At $3 apiece they’re a hefty investment.
Hāloa ‘Āina’s underlying goal, says Wade, is to demonstrate that sustainable forestry can, in part, replace the cattle ranching that now dominates the Big Island’s landscape. “By offering a lucrative alternative,” he says, “we can grow our native forest back.” But the hitch with sandalwood’s sustainability is its slow growth. The oldest trees have the sweetest heartwood. Indian and Australian sandalwoods are harvested at around twenty years of age; older is preferable. Those planting sandalwood today won’t reap the rewards of their work; they’re planting for future generations.
Under current law, Hawaiian sandalwood—the equivalent of gold on the arboreal world market—is no different from any average tree; it has no protection. Susan Leopold of United Plant Savers, a Vermont-based nonprofit that advocates for rare North American medicinal plants, thinks it’s insane that ‘iliahi isn’t better monitored. “With six unique species, Hawai‘i is the Mecca of sandalwood,” she says, “and it’s the only place in the world without any legislation to regulate it.”
Blakley thinks the tree should be managed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—a proposal to which the Lees strenuously object, as it would dramatically restrict their enterprise. For that reason, the Lees also object to local legislation in the works: Former Honolulu City Councilman Leigh-Wai Doo has been working hard to pass a bill that would monitor and restrict the harvest of ‘iliahi. The current version would create a task force to study Hawaiian sandalwood and make recommendations for its statewide management.
Mark Hanson isn’t waiting for commercial forestry to save the ‘iliahi. He’s got plans of his own. The amiable, gray-bearded 54-year-old is a self-taught arborist, the Johnny Appleseed of Hawaiian sandalwoods. He sells plants from his home nursery, but much of the work he does to perpetuate the native forest is unpaid. He lives on partial disability from a back injury he sustained in the military. “They call me Sandalwood Man,” he laughs. “The guerrilla forester.”
Hanson first learned about ‘iliahi after moving to Maui from Milwaukee in 1979. The 20-year-old went on a Sierra Club hike in Haleakalā National Park, where he heard about sandalwood’s sad history. An inner voice whispered that he would one day replant the pillaged forests. In the meantime he worked as former Beatle George Harrison’s gardener in Nāhiku, got married and did a stint in the military. But that intuitive voice returned, along with a few opportunities.
In 1995 Hanson started the nonprofit Hawaiian Reforestation Program. State forester Bob Hobdy gave him permission to collect S. haleakalae seeds from trees at Polipoli State Forest on Maui. Rene Sylva—a beloved Hawaiian botanist and another self-taught maverick—showed Hanson how to propagate the finicky plant.
Sandalwoods are tricky to grow. They can take anywhere from three months to three years to sprout. They need hosts; they’re semiparasitic and fasten their roots onto those of neighboring plants to draw nutrients. Hanson, who now lives in Volcano, is one of a few growers to have real luck with ‘iliahi. He’s been successfully germinating seedlings as long or longer than anybody else. His nursery is a tidy green factory flush with native saplings, sprouted from seeds he collected in the wild. He grows sandalwoods by the thousands but feels frustrated when he finds no safe place to plant them. “I’m the father of a homeless forest,” he says.
I meet Hanson at Mauna Kea State Park on lonely Saddle Road. At one time this near desert was mixed dry forest, populated by naio, māmane and ‘iliahi trees. Sheep and goats changed that. Hard hit by ensuing drought, the park’s sole vegetation now consists of a few bent and gnarled naio trees. Their blackened leaves are wasted by thrips, a new invasive pest.
I follow Hanson to a fenced area behind the campground. Since 2007 he and some Boy Scouts have nurtured a thirty-three-thousand-square-foot patch of native forest. It’s thriving thanks to the fence and a little extra water. Inside, Hanson points out a rare fern, Asplenium peruvianum var. insulate, growing amid the ‘āweoweo shrubs and blooming māmane. He hands me a leafy sandalwood sapling with instructions to plant it beside a māmane, which will serve as its host. I tamp down the soil around my sapling and douse it with water.
Next we hop over a locked gate to visit some sandalwoods in a gulch on state land. Hanson’s nonprofit spent $7,000 to erect small cages around eighty trees here. The state has done little to safeguard sandalwood trees—not that anybody in particular is to blame. The landscape is immense, funding shrinks year after year and public objection to killing sheep is strident. And as Susan Leopold says, if you’re hoping to protect a rare Hawaiian plant, get in line. Dozens of species desperately need help.
In 2012 the University of Hawai‘i hired Hanson to survey public land on Mauna Kea for sandalwood. He found only two hundred trees on Department of Land and Natural Resources acreage and another eighty-seven on property belonging to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. He’s now working with both departments to encircle the mountain with sandalwood seedlings. He also has an agreement with Kūka‘iau Ranch in Hāmākua to plant ‘iliahi on 4,500 acres, helping fulfill the ranch’s conservation easement requirements. Hanson might not have land of his own, but he’s getting sandalwoods in the ground.
Hanson was among the presenters at the recent International Sandalwood Symposium held on O‘ahu in 2012. He was there to pitch his grand idea: sandalwood nuts. The Australians are already marketing the tasty fruit of their Santalum tree. Hanson claims that this renewable resource will yield far more income than the tree’s wood. I remember Whitehead in the forest telling me about growing up in South Kona with parents who taught her the many uses of native plants—including how to roast and eat sandalwood nuts. “They taste like a cross between a macadamia nut and a coconut,” she’d said.
“People can’t see the forest for the wood,” Hanson tells me as we peer down at the tiny tree I’ve just planted. “The only way I know to keep people from cutting down all the trees I grow is to create a market for the nuts.” He hopes to give sandalwood trees an entirely new identity as a food source. He hands me a roasted ‘iliahi nut to sample. It’s tiny. And, in a hopeful sign, it’s delicious.