Hawaii Has Exceptional Trees

a koa forest
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A large tree welcomes visitors to the University of Hawaii campus, providing cool shade and the smell of – skunk. Yep, that’s its name: the Skunk Tree, or Java Olive.

I have smelled actual skunks and the tree isn’t quite as pungent, but it’s h3 and unpleasant enough that I hold my breath when passing. Before I came to Hawaii, I thought the only trees that had a smell were pines. I love the faint pine scent that seems to linger all over Colorado. But regular trees in the yard didn’t really have a particular smell. Here, so many trees have flowers that I’ve come to associate pleasant smells with trees – at least with most trees.

The skunk tree is on the list of Exceptional Trees maintained by the City and County of Honolulu. Each county has its own list of exceptional trees as a result of the Exceptional Tree Act, passed in 1975. The law was passed out of concern that rapid development had led to the destruction of many of the state’s exceptional trees. According to the state website, “The Act recognizes that trees are valuable for their beauty and they perform crucial ecological functions.” The act mandates that each county set up its own program for protecting exceptional trees.

To be recognized as an exceptional tree, the tree or grove must have a historic or cultural value, be unique as to location, size, esthetic quality, age or endemic status. Once the tree receives the designation, an approval permit is needed to prune them or do other tree work.

The skunk tree is one of several exceptional trees on the Manoa campus. It is from the Cocoa Family (Sterculia Foetida). The UH plants brochure says it produces red and yellow flowers and calls the smell “an unpleasant odor reminiscent of stale tobacco.” The tree smell is much h3er when it is flowering. The brochure says the seeds in its scarlet fruit are used in making seed lei and can be eaten raw or roasted “but have a purgative effect if eaten in quantity.” Oh, my. Yet another reason to admire this particular tree from afar.