Natural Areas of Hawaii

Aalii Maua Ohe mauka Iliahi
Native trees of Auwahi, Maui


Auwahi is a remnant native dry forest on the south slope of East Maui.   The noted Hawaiian botanist Joseph F. Rock singled out the Auwahi district on Haleakala, and the Puu-waawaa district of the Big Island as the richest botanical regions in the Territory, with more tree species than any Hawaiian rain forest.   Over the past centuries, this forest has been much degraded and now without action is threatened with total extirpation on Maui.  Auwahi is a biological and ethnobotanical treasure.   Of the 50-odd species of rare Hawaiian trees found here, 41 species had specific Hawaiian ethnobotanical uses, 19 as medicines, 13 in making specific tools, 13 in canoe construction, eight in kapa making, eight to make widely ranging dye colors, and at least seven of the trees have religious significance.   Without our efforts, all of these trees, their uses, their associated animals will all perish forever.   The Auwahi Restoration Group is a coalition of private and public agencies spearheaded by the U.S. Geological Survey and Ulupalakua Ranch.   We are working on a historic effort at dryland forest restoration by planting and weeding exclosures in order to "jumpstart" this unique native forest.   Please call Art Medeiros at 573-8989, e-mail, or visit for more information or an update on the next Auwahi service trip.


Dryland forests are among the most threatened of Hawaiian ecosystems.   On Maui, only an estimated 4% of the original dryland forest still remains.   Auwahi, with a very high diversity of native tree species, is generally considered one of the most intact dryland forest areas in the state (Wagner et al. 1990).   The area was first explored botanically in the early 20 century by Joseph Rock of University of Hawai'i and Charles Forbes of Bishop Museum.   In his famous book Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands (1913), Rock praised the area for its botanical diversity calling it one of the richest districts in the State.   Upon his return to the area some 20 years later in 1939, Rock is said to have wept over the dramatic deterioration during his absence.

The first attempts at conservation at Auwahi were made in the late 1960's, when retired Territorial Forester Collin Lennox and The Nature Conservancy constructed a large exclosure in an abortive restoration effort which unfortunately coincided with the invasion of the area by kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum). USGS scientists (with National Park Service until 1993) began exploratory work, with the permission (and blessing) of the landowner, Ulupalakua Ranch, 19 years ago. A status report based on extensive field exploration in the early 1980s (Medeiros et al. 1986) called attention to continued deterioration of native vegetation on leeward Haleakala and identified the Auwahi area as a prime area worthy of concerted conservation efforts.

Reasons for lack of reproduction may be complex and overlapping but probably include browsing by domestic cattle and digging by feral pigs; displacement by the aggressive introduced tropical African pasture grass, kikuyugrass, and microclimate change. Our observations suggest that with protection from ungulate browsing and digging, removal of the kikuyugrass mat, and restoration of favorable microhabitat, dryland forest restoration can be achieved at Auwahi.

The diverse forest continues to decline due to the absence of seedlings and saplings. For many species, reproduction by seed may not have occurred for a period of 50 to several hundred years. We have seen seedlings and saplings in the field for only 12 of 50 tree species at Auwahi over a 19-year period of field observations. Despite this, at least 36 species can be germinated and grown in greenhouse conditions. Of native trees found at Auwahi, six are listed by FWS as endangered species, five have been considered "species of concern," and many of the others are rare and declining range-wide.

Ethnobotanically, these forests were invaluable to early Hawaiians (Medeiros et al. 1999). Of the 50 tree species found here, 41 had specific uses. Nineteen species were used in medicines, 13 in making specific tools, 13 in canoe construction, eight in making bark cloth, eight to make dyes ranging from pink to blue to a rich yellow-orange. At least seven species have spiritual significance and were used in religious and cultural ceremonies. Other miscellaneous uses ranged from fire to bird lime, to a fish narcotizing agent. There s tremendous interest within both the Hawaiian community in restoring tracts of dryland forest. However, to date there are no major success stories for dryland forest restoration in Hawai'i.

Assisted by past funding from FWS, USGS his located one of the richest tracts of Auwahi for restoration, fenced a prime 10.4 acre site for experimental restoration (elevation 4,000 ft.), and has initiated a greenhouse propagation and outplanting program with assistance of funds provided directly to the landowner by FWS. We presented a conceptual plan for 120 acres of Auwahi restoration at the Hawaii Conservation Conference in July 1997 with landowner approval. The plan involves replacing the kikuyugrass cover among the museum- piece trees with a "nurse forest of quick-growing native trees to create relatively moist, semi-shaded microhabitat in which dryland forest seedlings can become established and flourish (Figure 2). A relatively brief window of opportunity exists during which this declining dryland forest is relatively restorable. Though forest decline is at a relatively advanced stage, excellent seed sources for most species still exist.

Currently, we are in the midst of implementing an experimental USGS-funded research project to develop methodology for establishing a nurse forest of native shrubs/trees to secure the site from weed invasion and eventually (within several years) provide habitat for restoration of 50 tree species. Based on the results of this project, the most effective methodology would be used as soon as funding for management could be obtained (from FWS and other sources) to restore dryland forest on additional Auwahi land, to which the landowner has willingly agreed. Based on methods developed through our ongoing pilot project, we can soon feel confident in our ability to cooperatively restore and manage dryland forest at Auwahi.

Chronology of Auwahi district

late 1800s

Lennox (1967) wrote, "In the last half of the century cattle raising as a ranching enterprise gained headway and undergrowth, particularly pukeawe and `a`ali`i, was destroyed by fire to make way for imported forage grasses. Natural reproduction came to an end for many species."


Hosmer (1912) writes of vegetation in adjacent Kula districts, "belt of heavy forest with dense undergrowth in the Kula districts between the elevations of 3500 and 5000 feet...Gradually opened up by grazing until now it has practically disappeared save as its former extents can still be traced by dead stubs..."


Joseph Rock first visits Auwahi, makes extensive collections, and remarks about its botanical value in his 1919 book, Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands.


Charles N. Forbes explores Auwahi, makes extensive collections, and provides some of the best early documentation of the area in his unpublished field notes.


The western portion of Auwahi is protected from cattle grazing by "nearly solid understory" of the weedy Mexican subshrub, Ageratina adenophora.


After nearly 20 years absence, Joseph Rock returns to Auwahi and is reported to have wept at the deterioration of the Auwahi forest.

mid- to late 1940s

A biological control agent insect is introduced to control Ageratina. The program is successful and in conjunction with a drought, the weed is virtually eliminated.

late 1940s

Kikuyu grass is introduced into the former Auwahi forest to enhance its use as pasture


Colin Lennox and The Nature Conservancy make the first attempt at conservation of Auwahi forests by constructing an exclosure. Due to lack of successful kikuyu grass control, the project is generally perceived as a failure, and the cattle are released back into the exclosure.

early 1980-present

The Native Hawaiian Plant Society (NHPS) builds eleven small exclosures to protect patches of native dryland trees at Auwahi.


A multi-agency cooperative effort is made at an experimental dryland forest restoration project at a 10 acre exclosure in western Auwahi. Partners include 'Ulupalakua Ranch, Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey (BRD-USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Native Hawaiian Plant Society (NHPS), Living Indigenous Forest Ecosystems (LIFE), and the public of Maui.   The success of this first exclosure leads to a second exclosure of 20 acres, that is currently being restored.   At the same time, the Auwahi exclosures have become part of the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership (LHWRP), an effort to restore forests on leeward East Maui, with a focus on koa (Acacia koa).


Auwahi district on East Maui extends from sea level to about 6800 feet (1790 meters) elevation at the southwest rift of leeward Haleakala volcano. In botanical references, Auwahi currently refers to a centrally located, fairly large (5400 acres) stand of diverse dry forest at 3000-5000 feet (915-1525 meters) elevation surrounded by less diverse forest and more open-statured shrubland on lava. Auwahi contains high native tree diversity with 50 dryland species, many with extremely hard, durable, and heavy wood. To early Hawaiians, forests like Auwahi must have seemed an invaluable source of unique natural materials, especially the wide variety of woods for tool making for agriculture and fishing, canoe building, kapa making, and weapons.

Of the 50 species of native trees at Auwahi,
19 species (38%) are known to have been used for medicine,
13 species (26%) for tool-making,
13 species (26%) for canoe building
13 species (26%) for house building,
8 species (16%) for tools for making kapa,
8 species (16%) for weapons
8 species (16%) for fishing,
8 species (16%) for dyes, and
7 species (14 %) for religious purposes.

Other miscellaneous uses include edible fruits or seeds, bird lime, cordage, a fish narcotizing agent, firewood, a source of "fireworks", recreation, scenting agents, poi boards, and hlua sled construction.

Nine species of trees (18%) have no recorded uses. In many of these cases, the wood appears to be a good quality durable hardwood for which there were likely ethnobotanical uses despite the lack of references in the literature.

Auwahi has been greatly transformed by burning, grazing, and invasion by non-native plant species. As a result, Auwahi has had much of its original native shrub and understory replaced largely by a thick mat of introduced kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum). Many native tree species produce viable seed but few seedlings are found and fewer of these survive. Since the late 1960s, Auwahi has been the focus of protection and restoration efforts that continue to this day. Thus far efforts have had only limited success.

"Every plant in the forest has a job, some trees have more than one job.
If you cut down the forest, you get money one time. Then when
you get sick you must go to the hospital in Honiara where they
give you medicines that don't work. When you cut down the forest,
you lose all the jobs in the forest. My brother can tell you
the job of a plant even if you only let him smell it."

Charles Orataloa, Malaita, Solomon Islands, 1993


"Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I understand."

The backbone of the restoration of the Auwahi dryland forest is the volunteers who commit part of their precious weekend every month in service of the land. This dedicated group of people comes from all over Maui, the other Hawaiian islands, and occasionally from the mainland to unite under a common cause. Restoration of the native forest of Auwahi requires a strong back, good tools, a loving heart, chocolate chip cookies, and a vision of a self-sustaining ecosystem in the future. Already we have seen dramatic changes in the exclosure over the 3 years that our volunteers have been regularly visiting. Over 7,000 native plants have been planted and millions of weeds pulled. We collect seeds in the vicinity of the exclosure, germinate and grow them in a greenhouse, nurtured until they are ready to return home as vigorous seedlings.

The Auwahi Restoration Group meets from 8 AM to 4 PM on a Saturday on Ulupalakua Ranch. All the work is done outdoors in a remote location with unpredictable weather on steep, challenging terrain. Because we are hiking and working at elevation, it is important to be in good health to work at Auwahi. It is necessary to bring good hiking boots that have been cleaned of weeds and mud, layered clothing, rain pants and rain jacket, a hat, at least 2 liters of water, a hearty lunch, sunglasses, sunscreen, and work gloves. If you have any planting tools, you may bring them. Reservations are required in order to have a seat in one of the 4-wheel drive vehicles that transport our volunteers to the work site from our meeting location. For your first visit, it is important that you speak with one of our volunteer coordinators in order to sign-up and receive the details for the work trip. We are honored to involve as many people in our local community as possible, so if you have a 4-wheel drive available let us know, that means more people can come!

Please call Art Medeiros at 572-4471 or e-mail for more information or an update on the next Auwahi service trip.

Volunteer experiences


This is an incomplete list of the plants found in Auwahi.  There are native and non-natives (*).
See also:   Plants of Hawaii images

Alectryon macrococcus var. auwahiensis -- Mahoe (Sapindaceae)
Alphitonia ponderosa -- Kauila (Rhamnaceae)
Alyxia oliviformis -- Maile (Apocynaceae)
Anagallis arvensis -- Scarlet pimpernel (Primulaceae)*
Anthoxanthum odoratum -- Sweet vernalgrass (Poaceae)*
Argemone glauca -- Pua kala (Papaveraceae)
Asclepias physocarpa -- Balloon plant (Asclepiadaceae)*
Asplenium adiantumnigrum -- Iwaiwa (Aspleniaceae)
Bidens micrantha subsp. kalealaha -- Kookoolau (Asteraceae)
Bidens pilosa -- Spanish needle (Asteraceae)*
Bocconia frutescens -- Tree poppy (Papaveraceae)*
Carex wahuensis -- Carex (Cyperaceae)
Cerastium fontanum -- Common mouse-ear chickweed (Caryophyllaceae)*
Chamaesyce celastroides var. lorifolia -- Akoko (Euphorbiaceae)
Charpentiera obovata -- Papala (Amaranthaceae)
Cheirodendron trigynum -- Olapa (Araliaceae)
Cirsium vulgare -- Bull thistle (Asteraceae)*
Claoxylon sandwicense -- Poola (Euphorbiaceae)
Cocculus orbiculatus -- Huehue (Menispermaceae)
Coprosma foliosa -- Pilo (Rubiaceae)
Cyrtomium caryotideum -- Kaapeape (Dryopteridaceae)
Diospyros sandwicensis -- Lama (Ebonaceae)
Dodonaea viscosa -- Aalii (Sapindaceae)
Euphorbia peplus -- Petty spurge (Euphorbiaceae)*
Geranium homeanum -- Cranesbill (Geraniaceae)*
Holcus lanatus -- Yorkshire fog (Poaceae)*
Korthalsella complanata -- Hulumoa (Viscaceae)
Kyllinga brevifolia -- Kyllinga (Cyperaceae)*
Lantana camara -- Lantana (Verbenaceae)*
Lepisorus thunbergianus -- Pakahakaha (Polypodiaceae)
Mariscus hillebrandii subsp. hillebrandii -- Mariscus (Cyperaceae)
Melicope adscendens -- Melicope (Rutaceae)
Melinis minutiflora -- Molasses grass (Poaceae)*
Melinis repens -- Natal red top (Poaceae)*
Metrosideros polymorpha -- Ohia (Myrtaceae)
Microlepia strigosa -- Palapalai (Dennstaedtiaceae)
Myoporum sandwicense -- Naio (Myoporaceae)
Myrsine lanaiensis -- Kolea (Myrsinaceae)
Myrsine lessertiana -- Kolea lau nui (Myrsinaceae)
Nephrolepis sp.  -- Sword fern (Nephrolepidaceae)
Nestegis sandwicensis -- Olopua (Oleaceae)
Nothocestrum latifolium -- Aiea (Solanaceae)
Ochrosia haleakalae -- Holei (Apocynaceae)
Osteomeles anthyllidifolia -- Ulei (Rosaceae)
Oxalis corniculata -- Yellow wood sorrel (Oxalidaceae)*
Panicum nephelophilum -- Konakona (Poaceae)
Panicum tenuifolium -- Mountain pili (Poaceae)
Passiflora subpeltata -- White passion flower (Passifloraceae)*
Pellaea ternifolia -- Kalamoho (Pteridaceae)
Pennisetum clandestinum -- Kikuyu grass (Poaceae)*
Physalis peruviana -- Cape gooseberry (Solanaceae)*
Pipturus albidus -- Mamaki (Urticaceae)
Pleomele auwahiensis -- Halapepe (Agavaceae)
Poa pratensis -- Kentucky bluegrass (Poaceae)*
Pouteria sandwicensis -- Alaa (Sapotaceae)
Psilotum nudum -- Moa (Psilotaceae)
Pteridium aquilinum subsp. decompositum -- Bracken fern (Hypolepidaceae)
Pteris cretica -- Cretan brake (Pteridaceae)
Rubus argutus -- Blackberry (Rosaceae)*
Santalum ellipticum -- Iliahialoe (Santalaceae)
Santalum freycinetianum var. lanaiense -- Iliahi (Santalaceae)
Schinus terebinthifolius -- Brazillian pepper tree (Anacardiaceae)*
Sherardia arvensis -- Field madder (Rubiaceae)*
Sicyos pachycarpus -- Sicyos (Cucurbitaceae)
Solanum americanum -- Glossy nightshade (Solanaceae)*
Solanum linnaeanum -- Apple of sodom (Solanaceae)*
Sonchus oleraceus -- Sow thistle (Asteraceae)*
Sophora chrysophylla -- Mamane (Fabaceae)
Sporobolus indicus -- Smutgrass (Poaceae)*
Streblus pendulinus -- Aiai (Moraceae)
Styphelia tameiameiae -- Pukiawe (Epacridaceae)
Tetraplasandra oahuensis -- Ohe mauka (Araliaceae)
Verbena litoralis -- Vervain (Verbenaceae)*
Vicia sativa subsp. nigra -- Common vetch (Fabaceae)*
Vulpia bromoides -- Brome fescue (Poaceae)*
Xylosma hawaiiense -- Maua (Flacourtiaceae)


Images of Auwahi

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This page was created on 01 February 2006 by Starr, and was last updated on 13 January 2008 by Starr.
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