Research investigates how indigenous microorganisms could help fight rapid ohia death

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A county funded community collaboration in lower Puna aims to find new solutions to the rapid ohia death problem.


A county funded community collaboration in lower Puna aims to find new solutions to the rapid ohia death problem.

The Malama Ohia initiative is in its preliminary stages, starting with a research project investigating effects of applying a spray of indigenous microorganisms, or IMOs, to ohia trees to see whether the spray boosts a tree’s resistance to the Ceratocystis fungus that causes rapid ohia death.

Rapid ohia death has affected more than 75,000 acres of trees on the Big Island, but has not been found on other islands. Lower Puna was hit particularly hard by the disease; the first dead trees were noticed in Leilani Estates.

Researchers continue working on several initiatives to understand how Ceratocystis — there are two separate species that cause ROD — moves through individual trees and spreads throughout forests.

IMOs are the linchpin of the Korean Natural Farming method, which has been growing in popularity in Hawaii during the past several years. The method, developed by Master Han-Kyu Cho of South Korea, uses the microbes to break down waste. It’s most common in piggeries, and results in no-smell facilities.

Anecdotal evidence indicates the IMO spray could help ohia trees recover.

The spark for the project came roughly a year ago, after Kalapana resident Dana Keawe tested an IMO spray on dead ohia trees and saw liko sprout shortly after.

The sample size was small and the test wasn’t a planned scientific one, though, so Keawe became interested in trying the procedure under more rigorously studied conditions.

“She told me what the Korean Natural Farmers had observed, with the success stories in the agriculture fields, so I thought ‘We need to try this, we need to do this research study,’” said Jen Johanson, one of the project leaders along with Leila Kealoha and Drake Weinert. “This is a devastating disease.”

“It’s really (about) caring for the native environment,” Weinert said. “It’s using the indigenous microorganisms — which is crucial to Hawaii, that we use indigenous solutions.”

“It was an idea that came directly from the community, and they were reporting good results,” said County Councilwoman Jen Ruggles, who represents Puna. “I wanted to support any effort that would possibly create a study that’s credible and that could hold up in the scientific community.”

Ruggles and fellow Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara each contributed $5,000 of their county contingency fund money toward the project.

“We’ve got to look everywhere for a solution to this problem,” O’Hara said.

University of Hawaii at Hilo biologist Patrick Hart is designing the experiment itself. The group is still seeking additional grants to fund the project.

“Right now we’re trying to find a test site to do the study,” Kealoha said. “Once we get that going, then we can start doing the IMO batches of solution.”

The method being used was developed by Cho’s son, Youngsang, and is “ultra low cost,” Weinert said. “We’re doing diagnostic testing right now to make sure the equipment works.”

The group also is readying the IMOs themselves.

Kealoha works with Puna charter school Kua O Ka La, and is collaborating with her students. The Lanakila Learning Center and Orange Moon Homeschool Cooperative also are participating, along with Hawaii Community College Forest TEAM (Tropical Forest Ecosystem and Agroforestry Management) students. Kealoha and Johanson also work with Junior Forest TEAM students.

“We really just need to pull all of our resources together and do what we can to help,” Johanson said.


For more information about the Malama Ohia project, visit

Email Ivy Ashe at

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