Bugs attack hala
trees on Maui

The distinctive pine seems to be
losing a war with an alien pest


KAHULUI >> The native Hawaiian hala tree is being threatened by a pest that causes the tree's famed leaves to turn from a vibrant green to a pale yellow, officials say.

So far, the nonnative scale insect, which is believed to have arrived in a tree shipment fewer than 10 years ago, has been detected only on Maui, where hala trees are a fixture of the landscape and culture.

The hala, also known as a screw pine, is known for its leaves, or lauhala, which are woven into mats, hats, thatching, fans and baskets. Old Hawaiians also used the lauhala for roof linings.

Mach Fukada, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture, said he will recommend placing a quarantine on Maui's hala trees in an effort to protect the rest of the islands from the infestation.

Finding a permanent solution could cost $500,000 to $1 million, he said.

State agriculture officials first identified the bug in 1996 in Hana, and considered it a threat among the hala that grow in inaccessible areas along the East Maui coast,

The scale insect, a tiny black bug, causes hala branches to suddenly snap off at ragged angles and leaves a scale of white spots along the leaves. All attempts to get rid of the pests have failed.

But recently, officials found the insect has spread to every area of Maui where the hala grows. This follows recent reports of mealybugs ravaging papaya, avocado, hibiscus and plumeria, and a virus known as "bunchytop" that is wreaking havoc on banana plants.

"No hala trees? No banana plants? What's next?" wonders Lisa Schattenburg-Raymond, executive director of the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, where nearly all of the hala trees are fighting the effects of the bug. "We used to have cast-iron plants where you didn't have to do anything to them, but we can't keep them alive anymore.

"What kind of a future are we looking at?"

Fukada said it will take a loud outcry from the public to get the kind of funds needed to research the problem and come up with an answer. Because the hala has more of an ornamental and cultural purpose instead of being part of the agricultural industry, it could be a hard sell.

"Unfortunately, I don't see this being a big priority (to officials) because the tree's economic worth is questionable when compared to the papayas with the mealybugs," said Fukada.

Kamaui Aiona, director of Kahanu Garden, recently sent an e-mail to every biologist and entomologist he could think of to draw attention to the problem.

"I didn't know what else to do," said Aiona. "A survey said it would be just about impossible (to eradicate the pest), but these days people are taking on impossible tasks and doing it anyway. I don't know if we can ever defeat it, but we might as well go down fighting."

The demise of the hala would be a loss for Hawaiian culture.

Hala trees are indigenous, with some species considered to be unique to the islands. The tree, which grows as high as 30 feet, has aboveground roots and gangly branches that end in tufts of spiked leaves bearing fruits dubbed "tourist pineapples."

Kumu hula Hokulani Holt-Padilla said she can't imagine Maui without the distinctive trees.

"It would be a loss of cultural understanding and reference that harkens back to stories, to mele and to hula," she said. "If these plants disappear, we no longer have a visual reminder of why this is so important to this story or that mele."



Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Native Hawaiian hala trees on Maui are being threatened by the non-native scale insect. A photo on Page A4 in yesterday's early edition incorrectly labeled a wiliwili tree as a hala tree. A hala tree is shown here.

A native Hawaiian hala tree.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at


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