Contemplating Kukui Trees and What to Pack

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Contemplating Kukui Trees and What to Pack

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Aug 29, 2011

So, I am sitting here contemplating kukui trees. Mine are weeping.

The kukui tree is the official state tree of Hawaii. It was sort of the like the Swiss Army Knife of trees back in old Hawaii. Hawaiians used its leaves, branches, trunks and seeds to make fires, canoes, medicines, fish bait, fish floats, dye, an adhesive, tattoos, cloth and oil for lamps. Today, the kukui is most well-known for its seeds that are strung into lei.

You might know it as the candlenut tree. Its scientific name is Aleurites moluccana.

What I like about the tree is it embodies my personal philosophy when it comes to landscaping my yard—native and care-free.

The kukui tree grows to 35 to 50 feet with a full, globular canopy. It is moderately drought-, salt- and wind-tolerant and grows in full sun and partial shade. What more could you want in Hawaii?

I picked up four kukui trees in two different sizes at an Arbor Day give-away several years ago. It was a violently rainy day, so few people showed up. Instead of the maximum one tree per person rule, I walked away with 22. At that, I had to turn down more saplings that were being hoisted upon me.

The trees took to our one-time pineapple field of a yard with pure grace. They took root. They grew. They blossomed. They dangled seed pods from their maturing tree limbs. Everything proceeded as planned until this spring when my husband noticed that the limbs of the two larger trees had started to droop. “They look like weeping willows,” I said after I investigated. But the kukui trees still continued to proffer new leaves, blooms and more kukui nuts.

I asked around. I asked if anyone had heard of weeping kukui trees. I received numerous blank stares and shakes of the head in response. I consulted books—Common Hawaiian Trees: How to Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place. And Growing Hawaii’s Native Plants.

But nothing could shed light on the mystery, and so I contemplate.

Just beyond my kukui trees, the county is trimming trees along the highway.

I will be trimming trees and pulling weeds and re-stacking rock walls this weekend at Nu’alolo Kai along the remote Napali Coast

I will take my binoculars. I will take my camera with its extra battery. I will take my fully-charged Kindle. But I won’t be taking my laptop, and I won’t be taking my iPhone.

In a notably smaller endeavor than The Winter of Our Disconnect, I will be without internet, without cellular service, without—like a few in the path of Irene—electricity.

And I am looking forward to it.

Nu’alolo Kai is a small valley along the western edge of Napali Coast and part of the Napali Archaeological District, listed on both the National and Hawaii Registers of Historic Places. Archaeological surveys that started way back in 1959, the year of statehood, have mapped a community of house sites and ceremonial platforms. The valley was inhabited until the end of the 19th century. Since then, though, nature has been left to do her thing. Introduced plants and trees have invaded and crowded out natives. Goats have kicked down ancient rock walls.

In 1995, a few people got together and formed Na Pali Coast Ohana. Their goal was to clean up the place, removing invasive plants—in particular castor bean and lantana—and re-introduce native flora—including the kukui tree. In 2001, Na Pali Coast Ohana received the Preservation Honor Award from the Historic Hawaii Foundation for its work at Nu’alolo Kai. A team or archeologists and volunteers continue to explore, map and, in some cases, repair the cultural sites.

In addition to contemplating kukui trees, I am also contemplating seabirds. For the first time in decades, a new bird species was confirmed in the United States. The Bryan’s shearwater was collected on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands way back in 1963. I suppose it’s only now been confirmed as a new species because of recent advances in DNA testing. It’s the smallest of shearwater known to exist. It’s black and white with a black or blue-gray bill and blue legs. Thing is, the bird specimen was collected 48 years ago and hasn’t been seen since—at least, not that we know. So, its name may never appear on anyone’s Big Year list. I would be more than satisfied to see the endangered Newell’s shearwater on this trip.

I am contemplating the numerous “high-priority” species that Cascadia Research has documented off Hawaii (Big) Island. The same ones that eluded us off Napali Coast a few weeks ago. Odontocetes like melon-headed whales, short-finned pilot whales, false killer whales, pygmy killer whales and Cuvier’s and Blainville’s beaked whales.

I am also contemplating much more immediate and pertinent things, like what to pack.

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