With the holiday season fast approaching, Big Island residents must once again grapple with a crucial question: where to buy a Christmas tree?
Every year, imported trees are big business throughout the state. A 2012 study by the Department of Land and Natural Resources estimated that more than 190,000 trees are sold in Hawaii each year, with 96% of them imported.
However, the DLNR and other environmental groups have long discouraged the purchase of imported Christmas trees because they can potentially be vectors for the introduction of invasive species. For example, in 2019, a Hilo resident bought a tree originating from Washington state that included an alligator lizard stowed away within its branches.
Alternatively, the DLNR has urged residents to purchase locally grown Christmas trees, which leads the crux of the issue: There simply are not enough trees on the island for everyone.
Luana Beck, co-owner of Hooluana Tree Farm in Mountain View, says she has about 300 trees for sale each year, which are available for sale between Thanksgiving and Dec. 20. Last year, she said, they sold out quickly.
“The thing is that a lot of the trees you get at the big stores were cut in like September,” Beck said. “So, they’re already really dry and losing color.”
The Hawaii Forest Institute has since 2014 conducted a project on the Big Island called the Aina Mauna Christmas Tree Demonstration Project, which has planted several stands of various tree species at multiple high-altitude sites to see which varieties, if any, could be used to create a viable Christmas tree industry on the island.
Hawaii Agricultural Research Center horticulturist Aileen Yeh said many species of that project have been proven to adapt well to certain climes around the island.
For example, Yeh said, the southern red cedar can grow well in Hilo, as can the Norfolk Island pine or the Monterrey cypress. However, the Douglas fir remains the most promising species for the island’s higher altitudes, she said.
“It can be done!” Yeh said. “But it takes a lot of hard work. All of our good trees are still alive because of work we did by hand.”
Unfortunately, that hard work is a limiting factor for the project. Most of the project’s planting sites are in remote places around the island.
Yeh said she hadn’t visited one site, on Mana Road, in over a year, even though that is one of the easier locations to visit. Other sites are totally inaccessible during the rainy season, she said.
Furthermore, she said, the project is still a demonstration only. The trees grown on Mana Road are much too large to serve as Christmas trees, and instead are used as indicators for which species are most ideal for the Big Island’s climate, and as an ongoing source of seeds.
Some seeds or saplings from the Aina Mauna Christmas Tree Demonstration Project have been given to certain property owners to attempt to grow them at lower altitudes. However, Yeh said, they have found mixed success, with many trees being eaten by pigs or choked by other vegetation.
“Or sometimes it’s just a bad match for the climate,” Yeh said.
Beck said she never had high hopes for the project.
“I told them back when it started that it wouldn’t work,” Beck said. “These trees need water and regular maintenance, and you can’t get either of those regularly on Maunakea.”
But regardless of the viability of a large Big Island Christmas tree industry, Beck, who sells a hypoallergenic evergreen species called Leyland cypress, said there always will be demand for the trees.
“I found it really difficult to do an artificial tree after moving here,” said Beck, who formerly owned an orchard in the Pacific Northwest. “And I think there’s a lot of people from the mainland who feel the same way, because we’ve done very well selling these trees.”