To the casual visitor, Hawaii is sunshine and beaches. But it’s more than that. If you visit often, or for long enough, or are lucky enough to live here, you’ll discover a unique product that is grown only in Hawaii (endemic) – and no, it’s not taro, lilikoi, or even lychee: it’s Acacia koa, simply known here as koa.
In ancient times, it was so prized that it was made kapu, prohibited for anyone to possess except for the royal class (ali’i), by King Kamehameha in the late 1700’s. Upon his death, the kapu was removed, which allowed all Hawaiians to possess this unique wood.
Similar to black walnut and known for its hardness and extraordinary beauty, the Hawaiians found a wide range of uses for koa, from canoes to household dishes and utensils. When malihini settlers arrived, they discovered that it is also a ‘tonewood’ and could be used to make stringed instruments, such as the ukulele.
Koa trees can attain a height of 50-75 feet and a trunk circumference of 20 feet. They are one of the fastest-growing Hawaiian trees, capable of reaching 20-30 feet in five years.
Ideally adapted to volcanic conditions, the larger Hawaiian islands supported huge forests of magnificent koa trees. However, the introduction of cattle, and the resulting clearance of huge swaths for pastures, severely reduced it’s habitat.
Koa trees are not endangered and recent restrictions on cutting, and protecting the seedlings from grazing cattle, sheep, and goats, have increased its population.
BUT! The only koa that can be harvested are dead or decaying koa trees on public lands.
It can take more than 25 years before a seedling grows into a tree large enough to be useful. In the meantime, it’s a premium wood selling for as much as $150/board. A fine piece of koa furniture, such as a dining table will set you back as much as a small car. There are several galleries on the Big Island that showcase koa pieces, Hawaii Treasure Mill and Harbor Gallery among others.
I’ve been lucky enough to have lived on the Big Island for years surrounded by McCandless Ranch. Their preservation techniques, practiced over many decades, have resulted in some of the best stands of koa in the state. The trees are stately and beautiful, and the wood from this island is particularly dark and red. The rarest is called ‘curly’, named for its swirly grain patterns. Curly koa is found in only 1% of koa trees.
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