There aren’t many trees like koa.
There are other beautiful woods, of course. But look up close.
Just beneath a polished koa surface, ripples appear, like dunes along shores. And koa has a wonderful resonance with plucked strings; no wonder ukulele luthiers prefer it.
There are other materials for making a racing canoe. But Hawaiian tradition calls for a long koa log, cut in solemn ceremony, and hand-hewn.
There are other long-lived trees. But koa seeds can lay dormant for years, not sprouting until the ground is disturbed. And the wood is plenty hard. A grand formal stairway was built of koa in the 1880s, at the heart of Iolani Palace, in Honolulu; and it’s the only entirely original wooden structure there that’s still in use.
Koa are found nowhere but Hawaii, and are most abundant on the Big Island. They grow best in the cool, misty uplands, though not where their feet stay wet. Canoe-makers admire them straight and cylindrical; wood-carvers favor the spreading, gnarly ones, for more intricate grain. Whatever their shape, koa trees grow tall, eventually over-topping whatever surrounds them.
And other trees do tend to surround them. Ohia – whose lehua blossom is the Big Island’s official flower – is a familiar companion to koa in the wild. Where the land has been disturbed, koa can be huddled by an
opportunistic waiawi thicket.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about koa, however, is why it’s so “popular” that other trees cluster round it. Koa is not like other trees. It’s a legume. Like peas or beans or clover, koa draws its most important fertilizer – nitrogen – not from the ground but from the air. And having used what it needs, koa “fixes” the excess nitrogen: sending it down and out through its roots, enriching the soil, where other plants and trees can draw it up.
Did you ever think a tree might have the aloha spirit, too?