Project restores native flora of Maui


POSTED: Sunday, September 27, 2009

By observing the water flow in Iao Stream, Ray Neilson can tell what the weather is like six miles away, high in the mountains of Iao Valley on Maui.

“;Since this morning, the water level has gone up by about a third,”; he says as we stand beside the stream on the grounds of the 35-acre Hawaii Nature Center. “;It's a bit murkier, and there are leaves floating in it, which indicate it's raining up there. If a flash flood is coming, you'll see a lot of debris, the water will be running fast and as deep as four feet, and it'll be the color of chocolate milk because heavy rains are washing soil into it. It'll also have a strong earthy smell.”;

Neilson is my guide for the center's Rainforest Walk, which spotlights dozens of native and introduced plant species, including guava, hala and kukui, Hawaii's state tree. All along the 90-minute, 1.5-mile tour, he shares tidbits about the greenery, which grows so thick in some areas it blocks the sun.





        The Hawaii Nature Center-Iao Valley welcomes volunteer help year-round for a variety of service projects, ranging from eradicating invasive species to restoring ancient taro patches. School and community groups of between six and 44 people can be accommodated in its on-site lodge, which has seven rooms, each with six or seven bunk beds and a private bathroom.

Volunteer programs are customized, so any number of days can be reserved. (The usual is three to seven days.) Rates vary, depending on the group's size, type, length of stay, program content and recreational activities. There's an optional charge of $44 per person per day for food (three meals daily), and it's recommended that reservations be made at least two weeks in advance. Call (888) 244-6503 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).





        » Meet at: Hawaii Nature Center-Iao Valley, 875 Iao Valley Road, Wailuku, Maui

» Time: 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays


» Cost: $29.95 for adults and $19.95 for children age 5 through 12, including admission to the center's Interactive Nature Museum (open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Kamaaina receive a 20 percent discount.


» Phone: 244-6500 on Maui, (888) 244-6503 from the other islands


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» Web site: www.hawaiinaturecenter.org


» Notes: Participants must be at least 5 years old. Wear casual, comfortable clothing and closed-toe shoes that have good tread, as the trail is uneven. The Interactive Nature Museum features more than 30 hands-on exhibits on Hawaii's cultural and natural history. Museum-only admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children (kids under 5 are free).




THE EARLY Hawaiians wove the leaves of the ukiuki into cordage and used its berries to dye tapa. Awapuhi flowers yielded a fragrant substance for shampoo and perfume. From ohia ai trees came succulent mountain apples and strong, straight poles for houses. Dancers gathered palapalai ferns for adornments and offerings to place on altars dedicated to Laka, goddess of the hula.

Kahuna lapaau (healers) brewed dried mamaki leaves into a tea that purportedly lowers blood pressure. “;Today there are still Hawaiian practitioners who rely on the power of plants to heal,”; Neilson says. “;They and their families have been coming to Iao Valley for generations to gather medicine.”;

He plucks a fruit from the papala kepau tree and asks me to touch it. It's as sticky as glue.

“;Bird catchers would put the sap on the favorite perches of birds in the forest,”; he says. “;When the birds landed on those branches, they would be stuck there, enabling the bird catchers to remove the feathers they wanted for capes, cloaks, helmets and other items worn by the alii (royalty). They used kukui nut oil to clean the birds' feet.”;

Unfortunately, coffee, thimbleberry, banana poka, basket grass and other invasive introduced plants are threatening the natives. “;We're engaged in an ongoing battle here,”; Neilson says. “;Volunteers ranging from kindergartners to kupuna (elders) are participating in our service project to remove the invasive species and replant the natives.”;

As one ninth-grade group from Kamehameha Schools' Maui campus was uprooting a big patch of thimbleberry last year, they discovered a lone mamaki shrub making a valiant stand in the middle of it. “;That showed the kids how the invasives are overwhelming the natives and absorbing all the nutrients and sunlight,”; Neilson says. “;We're trying to help the natives reclaim their place in the forest, but it's been a tough, uphill fight.”;

In olden times alii were laid to rest throughout Iao Valley. Although this lush, tranquil sanctuary was considered sacred and kapu (off limits) to most commoners, there were a few exceptions. Kahuna (priests), farmers and cultural practitioners were allowed in the valley to prepare the burials and tend the taro loi (patches) that provided them with food.

OVER THE past two years, hundreds of volunteers have been clearing the ancient loi and auwai (irrigation ditches) as part of Loiloa (Long Kalo or Taro), a joint project of the center and cultural advisers from Maui's Hawaiian community. The first taro crop was planted in July, and will be ready to harvest early next year.

According to Jay Franey, the nature center's Maui programs manager, the oldest evidence of human activity in Iao Valley dates back to A.D. 900. It's not known when the loi were built, but scholars believe they have not been used for more than a century.

“;We envision restoring three acres of loi as an outdoor classroom to teach the Hawaiian model of sustainability,”; Franey says. “;I've supervised many groups there, using the restoration work as an opportunity to point out the skills and insights the Hawaiians had for utilizing the precious resource of water.”;

The goal of the center's programs is to provide a positive outdoor experience for participants. Doing that, Franey believes, will inspire them to become dedicated stewards of the environment.

“;It's natural for people to want to protect something they enjoy,”; he says. “;If visitors leave the center embracing the notion of malama aina (caring for the land) not only in Hawaii, but wherever they live, we'll feel we've accomplished our mission.”;


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.