Asking albizia to go-Moloka‘i style

Tackling a giant albizia

Tackling a giant albizia

How does a two-person team control 850 invasive trees? If you’re MoMISC, you ask for permission first—from the landowner, the ancestors, and the trees themselves.

When Lori Buchanan of the Moloka‘i/Maui Invasive Species Committee (MoMISC) learned that albizia trees were invading a steep gulch in Nā‘iwa, she started strategizing. Native to the Indonesian archipelago, albizia rapidly monopolizes disturbed mesic and wet forests in Hawai‘i, and can rise to over 120 feet tall with wide, interlocking canopies. Because albizia trees fix nitrogen in the soil, they alter Hawaiian forests to favor non-native plants.

The Nā‘iwa discovery was the only albizia population on Moloka‘i—making it a good candidate for eradication. But controlling the trees would be a huge project, requiring the cooperation of many stakeholders.


These giants reach over 120 feet tall.

First Buchanan approached the landowner, who granted access to the site. Land and air surveys revealed a fifteen-acre patch of mature trees, some with trunks measuring seven feet in circumference. Before rounding up extra hands to help with control work, Buchanan consulted kumu Mikiala Pescaia, who has genealogical ties to the area.

“It’s a good idea to ask permission before you do anything,” says Buchanan. “Every place is sacred, or has some history, and so it’s always a good idea to consult the indigenous culture.

“Nā‘iwa is makahiki and hula grounds. The crew needed to know why it’s special before working there.”
Pescaia agreed to ask her ancestors to bless the project and to share the importance of the site’s numerous platforms and heiau with the crew. She explained how killing during the makahiki season would be inappropriate, since it was a time of peace and rest.

Kumu Mikiala Pescaia and the crew at the edge of Kalaupapa.

“She took us to the edge of Kalaupapa and said, ‘This is where the spirits leap off,’” says Buchanan. “After that, the crew was hyped. We knew we were going to sweat and work our butts off, but people would appreciate what we were trying to do. It put our work in a whole new light.

“Mikiala sees all her cultural sites being taken over by invasive species. Our work is important to her, to her ancestors, and to future generations. It’s a step in restoring a whole genealogy.”

Mikiala Pescaia asked her ancestors for permission before entering the work site. She outlined appropriate behavior for the crew to observe while working: no swearing, negative thoughts, smoking, or removing anything from the area.

Kumu Mikiala Pescaia and the crew at the edge of Kalaupapa.

Kumu Mikiala Pescaia and the crew at the edge of Kalaupapa.

Then, says Buchanan, “She went to the edge of the gulch and said to the trees, ‘You guys have to go. Thank you for what you’ve provided—oxygen, shade, etcetera, but you have to go. Lori and MoMISC are going to come and take you out.’”

Actually, it was Lori, MoMISC, and a small army. Kamalani Pali, the other half of MoMISC, helped organize crews from The Nature Conservancy, Maui Invasive Species Committee, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. John Neizman from the Department of Land and Natural Resources assisted with clearing the access road. Two retired foresters volunteered to cut and treat trees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Materials Center donated ninety pounds of native kāwelu, ‘a‘ali‘i, and ‘āweoweo seed mix. Before controlling the trees, Pescaia and the crew spread the seeds throughout the site, to repopulate the forest with native plants and suppress albizia regrowth.

Scientists and cultural advisors agreed that the best time to start work was the first week of March, after makahiki had passed. The crew girdled massive trunks, scraping the bark off with chainsaws to get to the heartwood and swabbing the cuts with small amounts of herbicide. Despite the heavy labor—three days of wielding chainsaws and rappelling to reach cliff-side trees—no one was injured.

Local businesses pitched in, too. Moloka‘i Community Federal Credit Union and Ron Kimball of Kamehameha Schools helped feed the workers. Mac Poepoe and Kanohowailuku Helm, local fishermen who have published a Hawaiian moon calendar, gave a pau hana workshop on how to be a pono fisherman. Realtors Diane and Larry Swenson accommodated visiting crews in their roomy warehouse.

A year later, only four of 850 albizia trees required re-treatment. The project brought together community members, field staff, and cultural practitioners. Work crews valued the opportunity to practice traditional protocols while working to free the island’s native forests from invasive pests. There’s no arguing that involving the community and asking for permission resulted in resounding success. The lessons learned during the albizia project will be applied to future control efforts on Moloka‘i and Maui.

“So many components had to come together. Everybody had to be on board,” says Buchanan. “But that’s our job: to make it easy for people to help us.” •

hard hats lined up

By Shannon Wianecki
MISC Editor and Curriculum Writer

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 edition of Kia‘i i Nā Moku o Maui Nui, the newsletter of the Maui Invasive Species. Find the full newsletter at

Poisonous rubber vine needs to be controlled

Rubber vine flower and plant

The rubber vine may appear to be a beautiful plant but it is actually poisonous. The vines will also creep up trees and into their canopies and foul up streams. (Photo by MISC)

When the crew from the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) arrived on Moloka‘i in February of 2005, they soon realized this was not going to be just another week at work. They were assisting the Moloka‘i/Maui Invasive Species Committee (MoMISC) in controlling a large infestation of rubber vine plaguing the Kamalō and ‘Ualapu‘e areas. The pest had invaded over five acres, forming impenetrable thickets that made it difficult to control. Just looking at the vast amount of area conquered by this one invasive plant made the MISC crew realize why the two-person MoMISC team called in reinforcements.

Controlling the large population was a daunting task and, at first, overwhelming.  But one by one, vine by vine, the crew attacked the rubber vine as if they themselves were an invasive species, quickly devouring everything in their path. By the end of the week, the once dark forest of rubber vine blanketing the treetops was transformed into a more open area with sunlight. By helping to initially suppress the pest, MISC was making it manageable for MoMISC to monitor and treat it in the future.

Here on Maui, we are fortunate that we do not have such large rubber vine populations.  Instead, we have limited infestations growing in residential areas. There is hope that we can eradicate this invader before it affects our natural and agricultural areas as well as quality of life.

Rubber vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora on Maui, C. madagascariensis on Moloka‘i) are vigorous climbing vines from Madagascar that can scramble their way 30 meters up a tall tree or grow as an unorganized shrub-like clump of vines one to two meters tall.  The plant invades waterways forming dense, impenetrable thickets that smother riparian vegetation and decrease biodiversity. Rubber vine can also impact ranching operations by restricting livestock access and lowering pasture productivity.

This invasive plant is extremely poisonous; it contains cardiac glycosides, chemicals that interfere with heart function in humans and animals when the plant is ingested. Contact with the plant’s milky sap can cause burning rashes and blisters. When the vine is dry, a powdery dust emerges that can cause violent coughing, swelling of the nose, and painful blistering of the eyelids.

Rubber vine has large, showy pinkish-purple flowers with five petals arranged like a funnel. Its shiny, dark green leaves, directly opposite each other, range from two to four inches long. The distinctive triangular seed pods average three to four inches in length and grow in wing-like pairs. Approximately 200 days after formation, the seed pods dry out and split open. Seeds with silky hairs are released into the wind and waterways.  Approximately 95% are viable – increasing the potential for rubber vine to rapidly spread.

In addition to natural dispersal, rubber vine can be introduced to an area by animals or humans. Livestock can carry seeds long distances through agricultural fields. Contaminated vehicles and machinery transport seeds from one worksite to another. Cultivation of rubber vine as an ornamental plant makes the problem much worse, especially since a plant may live for up to 80 years. Rubber vine is widely available to the public through Internet seed companies, few of which describe the plant’s noxious qualities.

In order to prevent the spread of rubber vine, areas downstream and downwind from known infestations must be inspected. Do not import, purchase, or plant this toxic species in your yard. If you have rubber vine on your property, call MISC and give permission to control it. If you see rubber vine growing or for sale, call MISC at 573-MISC. Encourage friends and family not to buy this or other pest plants so nurseries will stop selling them.

We are happy to report that since MISC assisted MoMISC in February 2005, the five-acre rubber vine population has been significantly reduced and eradication of this pest is within reach for the Friendly Isle. Inclusion of rubber vine on the Hawai‘i State Noxious Weed List is currently under consideration. Until it is listed, it is up to residents and visitors to protect Maui from this aggressive pest so that we can avoid dealing with large populations such as that once found on Moloka‘i.

By Joylnn Paman
Originally published in the Maui News, January 13, 2008 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column. Check out all of the MISC articles in the Kia`i Moku series at: