HONOLULU (KHON2) — A fungus continues to destroy some of Hawaii’s most important trees. Ohia trees are a lynchpin to the watershed of the islands.

A fungus called Rapid Ohia Death that kills the trees has been found on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and most extensively on the Big Island.

Ohia’s beautiful lehua flower can be used in lei for hula halau as they perform at the Marrie Monarch, but on the eve of the 2021 Merrie Monarch Festival, hula halau are trying to create awareness and save Ohia trees with their actions as well as what they wear.

Rapid Ohia Death has spread to about 1,000,000 trees on the Big Island, but researchers say that the epidemic has slowed.

“The curve is flat so that’s good it’s not a sustainable level we’d like it to go down but it’s not blowing up exponentially,” said University of Hawaii extension forester J.B. Friday.

The fungus is spread through injured trees, which often are cut open by animals like pigs, goats, cattle or sheep.

Rapid Ohia Death can also spread by people tracking it into forests, so hula halau are trying to do their part by staying away.

“If we don’t protect and advocate for our forests nobody will so for us as kanaka we had to take a stand and say ok we cannot utilize the Ohia Lehua like how we used to,” Kumu Hula Kenneth Victor said.

Victor is using Bottle Brush, grown in Kona, to make lei.

“We still needed to have the presence of Ohia Lehua but we knew that it wasn’t ok to use our forest so we just came up with other ways to create it,” Victor said.

The goal is to make the severity of the situation known and inform others what they can do to prevent it.

“Our halau includes not just the dancers but all of their family friends whoever comes into contact that we can educate about the importance of how we need to protect and advocate for our forest,” Victor said.

Hawaii residents can also help by:

  • Leaving wild Ohia where it is.
  • Don’t take Ohia inter-island.
  • Clean shoes, gear and tools before and after entering forests, and cleaning the undercarriage and tires of your vehicle.

Anyone can also plant Ohia around the home. It grows in more places than one might think.

“You can plant Ohia on Oahu, Kauai. Some people think Ohia lives only in the mountains because on Oahu you only see it in the mountains but here on Big Island it grows right down to the beach.” Friday said.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources has received $995,000 from the American Rescue Plan to fight Rapid Ohia Death, but it needs to be released by Gov. David Ige.

Merrie Monarch will be held Thursday, June 24, through Saturday, June 26.