Further along the narrow trail, we encounter a plush medley of colors: the shiny emerald of maile shrubs, the deep olive of kopiko trees, and the scarlet fade of ‘ama‘u ferns. I’m in a native-plant wonderland, seeing what Hawai‘i might have looked like before foreign vegetation set its roots.
But Ward explains that this trail is a study in contrasts, native species vying with invasives.
“This is Koster’s Curse, my least favorite,” he says, pointing to a small shrub with strikingly textured leaves. Its allure dissipates after I learn that this ruthlessly invasive plant (Clidemia hirta) lives up to its nickname by crowding out native plants like uluhe — a fern that protects the watershed by trapping potential runoff that leads to erosion.
“Uluhe is the carpet of the native forest; ‘ohiʻa is the canopy,” says Joe, pointing to a fiery red ʻohi‘a lehua tree.
I am reminded of the ill-fated love story of the ‘ohi‘a lehua, and refrain from plucking its vibrant blossoms. According to Hawaiian mythology, a handsome warrior named ʻOhi‘a fell in love with Lehua. One day, the fire goddess Pele encountered ʻOhi‘a and wanted him for herself, but he remained devoted to Lehua and he rejected the advances. The infuriated goddess decided that if she couldn’t have ʻOhi‘a, then nobody would, and turned him into a twisted tree. Pele ignored Lehua’s pleas to reverse the curse; however the other gods took pity on the heartbroken young girl, and turned her into a beautiful red flower on the tree. Legend says that when a flower is separated from the tree, rain falls like tears.
Ward stops so suddenly I nearly topple into him. He points to an ʻohi‘a lehua about twenty feet away.
“ʻApapane,” he whispers.
I follow his gaze and spot the crimson bird swooping through the treetops. This charming honeycreeper is endemic to Hawai‘i and makes its home in upper-elevation forests. We watch as its sharp-curved beak slurps ʻohi‘a lehua nectar before the bird flutters out of sight.