Rugged, barbed, and wild, the kiawe trees of Maui offer an incongruous and yet dramatic touch to the island’s lovely landscape.
Otherwise known as Hawaii’s mesquite tree, kiawes are primarily characterized by their intriguing oddness: In a terrain largely defined by lush flowers and slender palms, the kiawe tree—or prospis pallida—stands out like an anomaly with its gnarled branches, robust trunk, and leaves that look nearly shredded.
But within such oddness lies its striking beauty—and an incredible story.
The kiawe tree, which originates from the arid banks of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, was first brought to the Hawaiian Islands in 1828. Then, Father Alexis Bachelot—a Roman Catholic priest from Paris whose most well-known legacy is that of the “Prefect Apostolic of the Sandwich Isles”—planted a kiawe seed in the heart of what is now downtown Honolulu. Taken from Ica, Peru—where kiawe trees cling to dunes and weather South America’s hot, dry winds—that seed’s progeny engendered some of the earliest shade trees to adorn the capitol of Hawaii.
Given its original habitat in the parched climate of South America, it’s no surprise that kiawe trees flourished in the warmth of Hawaii.
In less than a century, kiawes spread across more than 155,000 acres throughout its chief islands; today, they’re naturalized and a vital part of the state’s stunning scenery.
Its ability to proliferate widely and swiftly is due to its nature as a spreading bush—that is, kiawes possess the facility to propagate easily through suckering (a process in which new organisms thrive without seeds or spores, and “shade out” competing plants in their proximity), while its seeds are readily dispersed. Cattle—as prodigious then in Hawaii as they are prodigious now—helped spread the proverbial aloha, resulting in the profusion of kiawes we see today on Maui, the Big Island, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, and Lanai.
Today, the kin of that Peruvian seed is considered one of the most important trees to be imported to the islands.
While the kiawe’s history of usage in the Hawaiian Islands is much less mature than that of the Americas—to date, there are over 6,000 years of documented usage of the kiawe tree and its pods in South America—it has proven to be handy in more ways than one in the islands.
Wood from the tree was and remains sought as a long-burning firewood—indeed, it’s deemed one of the best woods in the islands for barbeques. It’s also used for imu—a Hawaiian underground oven, frequently featured at luaus, that’s used to steam everything from pork to breadfruit. In addition, kiawe is used as charcoal (to say nothing of its ability to be used for heating).
Meanwhile, the tree itself is tapped as a source of food.
Indeed, in the South American countries from which it originally hails, it’s considered a “food of antiquity”—so prevalent in the diets of ancient South Americans that it was once as worthy as maize. There, it’s considered the equivalent of Hawaii’s kalo (taro, which was once one of the biggest staples for Hawaiians). Called the algarrobo in Spanish, kiawes can be made into jelly and tea, while its beans are pulverized to provide sustenance. It was also, at one time, given to children and nursing mothers to fortify their diets.
In other cultures, kiawes are used to create molasses, livestock—even beer. (Thank its high amounts of sucrose for the latter, which renders it ripe for fermentation.) Here in Hawaii, the bees that are drawn to the pods produce a rare honey; in fact, following the introduction of honeybees to the islands in 1857, Hawaii exported more than 200 tons of kiawe honey per year.
It’s no wonder the kiawe is considered “the mother tree” in South America.
Kiawes are considered a boon for diabetics with the tree’s choice concentrations of fiber, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Presently, private groups in Hawaii are aiming to bring awareness to the bounty potentially offered by kiawes, particularly its promise as a food practically built for survival. Flour derived from the tree, for example, can last for years.
The strength of the kiawe tree extends far beyond its uses as firewood and food—it’s also one of the most durable trees on the planet.
While it flourishes in the dryer parts of the islands (and throughout the world), growing most prominently on Maui in the hot climates of Kihei, Wailea, Makena, and Lahaina, the kiawe tree—which is part of the Mimosa family—can also survive and thrive in lava, ocean water, and sand. Their trunks grow in gnarled twists that make the wood ideal for fence posts, and copses of the trees have been employed for erosion control. Kiawes also take longevity to a new level—they can live up to a thousand years, with one of the oldest trees in Hawaii serving as the immense and iconic tree at the Halekulani on Oahu. A preserved chunk of Bachelot’s first tree, meanwhile, can be seen at Fort Street’s missionary church in Honolulu.
Such endurance is due to the presence of a long taproot—the fundamental root in a tree from which other roots flower laterally. The kiawe’s taproot reaches deep sources of water and is so effective at extracting nourishment from soil that it can demolish other plants by deriving them of water.
Because of this, while valuable, the kiawe tree is considered an invasive species in Hawaii (for more reasons than one): It edges out native plants and trees, renders some stretches of land impassable, and drops thorns to the ground that have punctured more rubber slippers to count.
But it remains beloved by both residents of Hawaii and the 8 million visitors who come to the Aloha State each year.
After all, this is a tree that has provided massive reforestation in the dry wasteland areas of the islands and goes down as the only coastal tree in Hawaii to form a canopy. And what better way to spend a day at the beach than beneath its shelter?
Photos courtesy of Photographers in Hawaii.