In the Garden

Michael Miyashiro

Friday, July 23, 2004


Nestegis sandwicensis / Hawaiian Olive

Description: Beautiful trees with dark green foliage and rough brownish-gray bark. The trees can grow up to 60 feet tall but usually stay in the 15- to 25- foot range. They have small flowers that develop into purple fruit resembling kalamata olives.


Distribution: This endemic tree, although increasingly rare, can be found within dry and mesic forests on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, LanaI, Molokai and Hawaii, from near sea level to more than 3,000 feet.

Cultural uses: Although this plant is in the olive family (Oleacea), it is never used as food so don't cut them up and put them on your "Hawaiian" pizza. (What's up with that "Hawaiian" pizza anyway? Since when does Canadian bacon and pineapple make something Hawaiian? They should pile on the lu'au leaves, sweet potato and kalua pig, then call it "Hawaiian"; and substitute the anchovies with some opihi, das da winnah!)

Anyway, back on the subject, rather than being used for food, olopua has beautiful wood which is valued for its durability. Spears, digging sticks, and adze handles are commonly made with olopua, which is also prized as firewood because it burns very hot even when freshly cut. But don't cut any down, because there are ample supplies of non-native woods that work as well.

Landscape uses and care: Olopua works great anywhere because it can handle a wide range of watering conditions. It prefers full sun but can tolerate shade and few pests are known to bother it. The picture above shows two endangered Oahu tree snails, pupu kuahiwi (Achatinella mustelina), on the underside of the leaves, because this tree is still one of the major hosts for these stunning, extremely rare snails.

Vanishing act

There are a number of factors which contributed to the decline of Hawaii's beautiful land snails, including habitat degradation, introduced species like rats and carnivorous snails, or other non-native snails that out-compete the natives by reproducing at a faster rate. The native Achatinella produce only one offspring per year and it takes years for that baby to become reproductively mature while some non-native snails produce hundreds of offspring throughout the year and mature more quickly.

One of the hardest hits for the native snails came during the early- to mid-1900s when they were collected and traded like baseball cards. People on Oahu had drawers filled with thousands of shells. Written accounts tell of finding hundreds of snails in a single tree; now it's difficult to find a single snail in hundreds of trees!

Does this scenario of over-harvesting sound familiar? Look in our ocean and tell me what you see. Better yet, tell me what you don't see.

Rick Barboza co-owns Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native Hawaiian plant nursery, with Matt Schirman. Contact him at 259-6580 or e-mail

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