They’re called Ohi’a Lehua Trees.
They’re a flowering evergreen that are endemic to Hawaii. They also have the potential of changing Christmas as we know it on Maui.
For the last five years, Joe Imhoff and his wife Sara Tekula have put on a “Planting Christmas” project offering potted ohi’a lehua trees as a substitute for an artificial or cut conifer that you buy in a supermarket parking lot.
They’re the same people who run Plant a Wish, which began in 2010 with the goal of planting native trees in all 50 U.S. states and producing a documentary film on the project. Plant a Wish completed their expedition on Arbor Day, Nov. 5, with a grand finale celebration on Maui.
I recently caught up with the green thumbs to find out the details on both Planting Christmas and their Plant a Wish film project (Call 808-250-1469 for more information or visit http://www.plantawish.org/planting-christmas).
MAUITIME: How did the idea of planting a Christmas tree first come about?
SARA TEKULA: There’s this old tradition from Germany where a tree is cut and brought into the home. Considering we’re on an island that is in need of MORE trees, we figured why not flip the script and plant a tree for the holidays. There are many places around the world that simply can’t plant their Christmas trees because of the cold weather or frozen ground. But we don’t have that problem here in Hawaii. And our native trees are beautiful.
JOE IMHOFF: There’s something really awesome about caring for a living tree. You don’t have to dispose of it after the holidays. Instead you can keep your Christmas tree and watch it grow. We have a small forest growing in our backyard, filled with Christmas trees from the past.
MAUITIME: Is it detrimental to the environment when people purchase cut trees?
TEKULA: There are some really smart sustainable tree farmers who are doing it right, but there are many more who do not. Purchasing a cut tree just feels silly when you can purchase a live one. And we all know that shipping plant material into Hawaii is really risky business and puts a major burden on our ag inspectors to check shipments fast and get the trees to the sales lot. They do a great job, but there’s always a risk involved.
IMHOFF: In Hawaii, many invasive bug species have come over on cut trees from the mainland. This has been devastating in some cases. Plus, with all the oil and gas that it takes to get the trees here, it’s way more sustainable to buy local trees.
MAUITIME: Do your trees come with instructions for planting?
TEKULA: We work with each individual buyer on selecting the best area of their property to plant, and provide information guides about their particular species of tree.
IMHOFF: I deliver the trees personally, and go over the steps of planting the trees with the customers, addressing any questions they might have.
MAUITIME: How long will they last in the pot?
TEKULA: Potted trees really want to be in the ground, so their roots can spread out and they can set up their permanent home. We recommend planting them as soon as possible after the holidays. We also think the trees will benefit from a few day trips outside during the course of the time they’re inside your home–so they can soak up some sunlight and breathe.
IMHOFF: They can last a long time in the pot. However, it’s good to get them in the ground as soon as possible. They’ll be much happier in the ground.
MAUITIME: Are they safe to decorate while in the pot?
TEKULA: We always decorate our potted trees with beautiful, lightweight bulbs and organically made ornaments. Each year, we’ve had a different tree species, so we always make sure we’re not overloading the tree. So we adjust.
MAUITIME: Can I hang electric lights on my live tree?
TEKULA: We use LED lights on our live trees; they don’t run as hot and use less electricity.
IMHOFF: Yes, just unplug before you water the tree.
MAUITIME: What made you choose this particular tree?
IMHOFF: The ohi‘a lehua we’re offering has gorgeous red flowers that bloom throughout the year, and it’s quite a versatile tree. It once grew on the islands from sea level to 9,000 feet in elevation, and native birds love them. They were once a very dominant component in Hawaii’s native forest.
TEKULA: They’ve got really beautiful dark green leaves which almost mimics the color of evergreen trees, and bees love them, too!
MAUITIME: Is there an alternative to planting the tree in my yard that still coincides with your vision for the trees?
IMHOFF: Yes, we are planning a tree planting event after the New Year for all participants who need a place to plant their Christmas tree.
TEKULA: We can also plant the tree for them, and dedicate it to a family member or friend. In the past, we’ve sold multiple trees that were tree planting dedications, which make great holiday gifts. Our vision for the trees is to bring them into Maui’s landscape again, to bring back the health of our precious lands.
MAUITIME: How did all this start?
TEKULA: Our first native tree planting on Maui was at our wedding, on February 14, 2007, on a flower farm in Kula. We had used a native tree for our Christmas tree a few months prior. We had waited too long to shop for a Christmas tree, and the island was out of the usual cut trees, so Joe bought a koa. At first it felt a little like A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it grew on me that this was a really special tree and that we’d plant it.
We still needed to plant it when the time came for our wedding ceremony. So we decided the tree planting would be part of our ceremony. Minutes before walking down the aisle, Joe was shoveling dirt and getting the planting site ready. I think that’s pretty damn romantic.
IMHOFF: We came up with this idea to dig the hole right at the entrance to the ceremony, where all of our friends and family would be passing by as they arrived. There was a table with scraps of paper and pens, and friends of ours stood there, explaining that Sara and I requested that they write their wishes for us and drop them into the hole.
Then, late that night, after everyone had gone home, Sara and I quietly planted it together. We still visit the tree, which has now grown to be much taller than us. We realized that there was something special about planting your wishes under a special tree, with a community. Later that year, we started our “Planting Christmas” native Hawaiian Christmas tree campaign.
MAUITIME: Do either of you have a background in agriculture?
IMHOFF: Ever since I’ve moved to Maui, I’ve been some kind of a land steward. Whether it’s the land I live on, or the land I work on [Skyline Eco-Adventure’s Crater Road location], I have always just felt compelled to take care of this place. The more I learned about the history of Maui’s badly damaged landscape, the more I knew I needed to dedicate myself to repairing it.
TEKULA: I’m the daughter of a fisherman dad and a gardener mom. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had an appreciation of how the land provides for us, and how we need to be an active caretaker of it. I always helped my dad on the boat and my mom in the garden. I spent a lot of time in nature as a kid.
Moving to Maui in 2004 really deepened my connection. This place is precious, extraordinarily special and extremely fragile. The ecosystems that once operated to their fullest potential on Maui are now either non-existent or badly damaged and teeter tottering on the edge of collapse–all due to human choices. Rather than get mad at the people who made it this way, I take my energy and use it to promote better stewardship and simple things like planting native trees in your yard to create backyard habitats.
MAUITIME: Do you keep track of how many trees you plant on Maui? How many in the Mainland?
IMHOFF: Well, I plant trees all the time. Sometimes it’s part of my job at Skyline. Other times, it’s at home or on a friend’s property or joining up with another organization’s volunteer project. I would say I’ve easily planted over 2,000 trees myself on Maui, and many of those plantings Sara was a part of too.
TEKULA: We definitely keep track of the number of trees we plant through Plant a Wish, but we also count the number of people who participate with us. We think the number of people actively caring for the land is equally, if not more important. And of course, there was our Plant a Wish Tour Finale, held statewide, with Joe and I planting on Maui. Joe and I were responsible for planting 600 trees that day, but we also promoted our finale statewide and encouraged all islands to hold Plant a Wish ceremonies of their own on that day.
I’m proud to report that there were at least 33 other Plant a Wish events happening in Hawaii on that day, specifically to be in solidarity with us, on November 5th. And the total trees planted that day was 1,243. The number of people who participated throughout the state was 376–this included people on every island, besides Kaho‘olawe.
Our mainland tree/people totals are: 181 trees in 49 states plus Washington DC, and approximately 1,200 people. We organized and participated in a total of 52 planting events on the mainland, planting in some states twice.
MAUITIME: What kind of trees were you planting on the Mainland? Do they recognize the significance of native trees the same as we do on Maui?
IMHOFF: Everywhere we went, we had two requirements: One, the trees we planted MUST be native to the area, and two, the trees had to be left behind with caretakers. So, we planted all kinds of trees: desert trees, rainforest trees, deciduous trees, evergreens, you name it. Wherever possible, we looked to plant the longest-lived trees, like oaks or other hardwoods, to have the biggest impact.
Maples were common, and also trees that would feed birds, like Serviceberry trees in the Eastern states. In a lot of places we went on the Mainland, we’d discover that while native trees were still around, they were second-growth trees, meaning the old growth had been cut for lumber and a second generation was growing back. These younger trees aren’t performing the same functions at the same levels as the older trees once did and often they don’t grow back in the same way, requiring a lot of management and forest thinning. Clear cutting is just not natural and it throws the balance off in the forest.
People are waking up to the important role that natives can play in land restoration and overal ecosystem health. Ninety-seven percent of Iowa is plowed or paved. Farmers in the region are now being encouraged to plant natives to help control fertilizer run off and over all soil/air/water health in the area.
TEKULA: It was like a puzzle for us to solve in each state. Finding the location first, then learning about the location and what the soil/ecosystem was like there, and then finding a local nursery that was willing to donate one or more of the right kind of trees. It was really fun to study and research and learn, and I have to say that we both have gained a wealth of knowledge about what makes ecosystems work around the country.
Native trees are important all over the country, for cultural, ecological, historical and other reasons. One thing we did notice, however, is that much unlike our island ecosystem, on the Mainland trees can be native to an enormous regional area. Certain species of maple, oak and pine are native to a whole bunch of states. Here in isolated Hawaii, though, our natives are endemic to our state, meaning if we lose them here, we lose them from the entire planet. They won’t be found anywhere else.
MAUITIME: So you have completed a few goals, like planting trees in every state, planting native trees on Maui. Now you are working on your film? How is the editing going?
TEKULA: Our next step is to raise funds to pay for our post-production process. We’re researching grants and other types of funding so that we can give the editing process the dedication and resources it needs to be done in a high-quality way. My dream is that someone will learn about the wealth of footage we have, and the unique story we have already endured, and come on board with funding to help us make a killer film with a wide reach. From experience I can safely say that post production is always the most expensive part of a film, and if it’s not done right, it can be even MORE expensive than that.
Our next steps involve shooting additional interviews and scenic footage in Hawaii, organizing our footage for the edit–a must when you have 200 hours like we do–then working with writing consultants who can help us create our story arc. Then we will be hiring an editor.
While Joe and I have an edit bay at our home studio, and are darn good editors ourselves, we both agree that we’re too close to the project. We’ve got to put our individual egos aside and open up to a third party perspective. It will do the film a world of good in terms of reaching our audience effectively. I really see this film entering (and hopefully winning) festivals, and being screened in all 50 states, near or around the places where our trees are now growing.
IMHOFF: I’m really excited about the editing process. I can’t wait to dive into the sea of footage and remove everything that’s not the film. We hope to have it completed by the summer of 2012 and qualify for festivals in 2013.
MAUITIME: What is in store for 2012 for Plant a Wish?
IMHOFF: We’ve been invited to host a tree planting ceremony in honor of the 20th anniversary of the East Maui Watershed Partnership in January. We’re really looking forward to that and we’re honored that they asked us to participate with them. We love what they do for Maui.
TEKULA: I’m looking forward to continuing to share the story and mission of Plant a Wish with organizations, schools, just about anyone who wants us to. I want to show as much support as possible to the organizations who have been taking good care of the native lands we still have left on Maui. And ideally, we’ll use our experience and alliances around the country to bring tree planting on Maui to the next level.
That year will be about taking the Plant a Wish project back home to where we live, to make a significant difference in how each person can better care for the the land–right where they live. And then of course, when the film’s complete, we want to share the film with as many people as possible.
Oh, and then in December 2012, the world ends, right? [Wink]. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.