During our 2018 trip to Hawai’i (see other posts for touristy and mostly outdoor adventures on the islands), we wound up taking a drive along the famous Road to Hana, on Maui.
If you’re unfamiliar, this route is a narrow (often single-lane) route that winds in and out of the canyons on the north shore of the island, at the foot of Haleakala. The area is a localized tropical rainforest, formed as Haleakala’s slopes catch the moisture-laden winds off the pacific, and the foliage is dense and diverse, shading waterfalls around every corner.
We happened to make the trip in a near-downpour, as rain from still-distant Hurricane Hector was starting to reach Maui, so our exploration of the various falls and other sights was fairly limited. One of the most striking things we kept seeing was a tree, covered with bright orange flowers. It was beautiful, even in the fog and rain – a splash of vibrant color in a green and gray landscape.
In my post-trip research, trying to figure out what exactly this tree was, I kept running across words like “scourge”, and “plague”. The tree is an African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata), also called flame of the forest, the fountain tree, or fireball. And while it is gorgeous, it’s an invasive tree that is crowding out native plants on Maui and Molokai, in particular. As is the case with many invasive species, the plant’s ability to survive, thrive, and dominate comes from traits that enabled it to be successful in its native habitat. Here in Hawai’i, competitive pressures are not as severe, and the tree’s natural capabilities are rapidly making it the king of a new forest.
Brought to the islands in the 1800s, it has quickly spread. It’s a fast-growing, prolifically-seeding, and worst of all, shade-tolerant tree that can grow wherever it finds a foot-hold, even beneath the canopy of a dense rainforest. Its only known weakness is its low tolerance for higher altitudes – it currently seems to peter out at about 3,200 feet elevation. Hawai’ian officials are encouraging removal of African tulips where possible, and trying to prevent future plantings.
Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder!
Get Out There!