Pu‘u Kukui: Maui’s protected endemic plant heaven

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Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, Trustee, Maui

The summit of Mauna Kahālāwai is a place few will visit. Pu‘u Kukui Preserve (the “Hill of Enlightenment”) stretches from 480 feet at Honokōhau Stream to the Pu‘u Kukui summit – the highest point on Mauna Kahālāwai at 5,788 feet. Vistas appear and vanish in the white clouds. Pu‘u Kukui has been spared human intrusion as it is defended by shifting walls of clouds, sheer cliffs, and 350 of inches of rain per year.

Pu‘u Kukui serves as an essential water-catchment system for West Maui. Rain forests, shrub lands, and bogs grow in a pristine environment, and act as a significant water source that provides aquifer recharge and ensures adequate supply of water for agricultural, irrigation and domestic uses. The forest of native vegetation protects fragile mountain soils from erosion by acting like an immense sponge that absorbs rains. Water is released into streams and groundwater aquifers, rather than running off the surface in torrents to the sea. Subsequently, Pu‘u Kukui also benefits the shoreline resources of the Honolua-Mokule‘ia Marine Life Conservation District.

A miniature forest that exists here and nowhere else on Earth. The ground in every direction looks like an artfully woven haku. Stunted by centuries of too much wind and rain, too little oxygen in the soil, native ‘ōhi‘a trees are six inches tall, and triumphantly push forth full-sized blossoms. These miniature trees nestle amongst lichens, mosses, and shrubs, creating an unbroken tapestry of brilliant blooms and silver-tipped leaves.

Pu‘u Kukui Preserve was considered wao akua, with no regular access by maka‘ainana or ali‘i. What little access likely to occur was by certain kahuna, kia manu, or those with specific collection purposes. One of the most sacred bodies of water in Hawai‘i, Ki‘owaiokiha, is the mountain home of Kihawahine, a mo‘o goddess and ‘aumakua of Princess Keōpūolani. Violet Lake is home of the endemic Maui violet, a flower with a full, heady fragrance designed to seduce pollinators.

Pu‘u Kukui is a microcosm of the history and future of Hawaiian biodiversity. Plants have devised ways to survive on this soggy, rugged peak with flamboyance. Unique, beautiful, and fascinating species exist here, and there is no reason to believe we cannot save the great majority of them. ‘Amakahi, ‘apapane, and ‘i‘iwi joyfully dart through the preserve. Pu‘u Kukui provides critical habitat for native birds, thirty-six species of rare plants, and the endangered Hawaiian hoary bat.

Pu‘u Kukui’s reforestation efforts mitigate against negative impacts of climate change. Natural climate solutions, such as improved forest management could cost-effectively reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by seven billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions annually. Reforestation efforts offer other important benefits, such as restoration of freshwaters and aquifers, an idea well-known and long held by indigenous cultures.

Continuing to focus on the utilitarian value of watersheds creates a risk of overlooking the urgent need to preserve the uniqueness of our native forests. Those who think that nature and humans are essentially opposites strive to erase humanity’s past and present footprints from the landscape. The stewards and the species here have demonstrated persistence in challenging these perceptions. Pu‘u Kukui offers a vision that is both practical and inspiring. If this remote archipelago is still graced by the songs and brilliant colors of its native flora, fauna, animals, and the ecosystems that support them, it will be this kind of bold action that our mo‘opunawill mahalo us for.

We would like to thank Pōmaika‘i Kanīaupi‘o-Crozier and the Pu‘u Kukui Watershed Preserve team for the incredible opportunity to visit their watershed.