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Plants: Species

Koa Acacia koa


In Hawaiian folklore, the koa tree has traditionally represented strength, bravery, and overall well-being. Long before Californians were riding waves, the Hawaiians invented surfing as a sport, and some of the first surfboards were made out of the wood of the koa tree. Ocean canoes, musical instruments, and many day-to-day items were also crafted from these ancient trees. When finished, the wood produces a particularly fine, beautiful grain, making it very desirable and expensive.

Because of high demand and loss of habitat, many once-great stands of koa trees are no longer in existence. Many years ago, expansive forests of koa trees blanketed mountainous areas above 1,000 feet (300 meters). When ranchers first started clearing the land for cattle, old growth koa trees were the first to go. Today, there are only a few upcountry areas where they can be found. Thankfully, many reforesting projects are underway in Hawaii.

The genus Acacia can be found all around the world, but the species koa only occurs naturally in the Hawaiian Islands. In Hawaii, it reaches 60 feet (18 meters) high with an equal spread. In mature trees, long sickle-shaped leaves hang down from the branches and yellow, puffy flowers coat the tree in late spring. The San Diego Zoo is blessed with a few koa trees in the Hawaiian Native Plant Exhibit.