With Merrie Monarch approaching late next month, hula hālau across the state are beginning to prepare for the upcoming festival on Hawai‘i Island. For some that means gathering plants and flowers that represent the mele, or song. It’s a tradition that’s brought countless hālau into native ‘ōhi‘a forests, where the lehua blossom grows. But a rapidly spreading disease is prompting some to call for an all-out ban this year. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.
Kumu hula Robert Keano Ka‘upu says his hālau will look a little different this year. Missing will be the bright red lehua blossoms, typically worn at Merrie Monarch by his dancers. “It’s been a major concern within the last year,” said Ka‘upu, kumu hula of Hālau Hi’iakaināmakalehua, along with Lono Padilla.
Since then, a fungal disease attacking native ‘ōhi‘a has gotten worse, and is rapidly spreading to forests across the Big Island. Ka‘upu, like other kumu hulas, has made the decision to avoid using ‘ōhi‘a lehua and plans to stay out of infected forests. “I know where to go to pick, I know how to pick, and I teach my students,” he said. “But I’m afraid to pick now.”
For Ka‘upu, who grew up in Hilo with an ‘ōhi‘a tree in the backyard, the loss of lehua feels personal. “Symbolically it means something much more than just a flower,” he said. “We are trying to convey messages, rituals, ceremonies through song that require the usage of kino lau, or physical manifestations of the forest. It’s hard to use other things, but it’s not impossible.”
“It might be safest to just call a general kapu on ‘ōhi‘a lehua for this year,” said Sam Ohu Gon, the senior scientist and cultural advisor at The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. He’s concerned that the traditional collecting of ‘ōhi‘a for hula halau could further spread the disease and possibly bring it to other islands.
“What if those materials are gathered from the wrong place and then moved somewhere else where people are moving around in those infected areas and don’t clean their boots correctly,” said Gon. “They could easily spread it much faster than it already is spreading on the island of Hawai‘i.”
Recent aerial surveys by county, state and federal agencies reveal the disease is spreading more quickly than originally thought. Scientists say tens of thousands of acres of native ‘ōhi‘a forest are now infected. Flint Hughes is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. He says even going into a part of the forest that’s not infected to gather lehua can be damaging. “The very act of collecting opens up wound sites where the fungus could enter and could kill that given tree,” said Hughes.
It’s especially tragic that this disease is impacting a part of the community that holds ‘ōhi‘a in such high regard. “I always look at Merrie Monarch as being a big part of the celebration of the culture and natural systems of Hawai‘i,” said Hughes. “To see this disease getting in the way of that is really a sad turn of events for all of us.”
The forest service and DLNR will continue working with kumu hulas to spread the message. Merrie Monarch officials did not return requests for comment on whether an all-out ban on ‘ōhi‘a will be called. The hula festival is scheduled to begin in Hilo on March 27th.