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UHWO Service Learning: Kalaeloa Heritage Park

This month’s service learning for UH-West O’ahu biology students was held at Kalaeloa Heritage Park, an archeological site and wahi pana (sacred place) managed and protected by the Kalaeloa Heritage and Legacy Foundation. The 77 acres that make up Kalaleoa Heritage Park contain 177 recorded cultural sites including a heiau (Hawaiian temple). A six-acre section housing 51 documented archeological features is being prepared as an educational park which will eventually be open to the public. The entire ‘Ewa Plain (stretching from Pearl Harbor west to Wai‘anae) including Kalaeloa Heritage Park is emerged coral reef which has fossilized and covered with a thin layer of soil. Prior to the restoration, the students were given a tour of the 6-acre park, including the eleven primary archeological features which will form the focus of the park when it is open to the public. These features are built of coral ‘rocks’ excavated from the surrounding area and suggest a Tahitian origin due to the prevalence of upright stones in the construction. The features include:

  • Sinkholes in the coral which access an extensive underground river of freshwater.  Sinkholes were used for agriculture (plants could be planted inside the sinkhole to access the water), drinking water, or burial sites. Some of the sinkholes were large enough to have stairwells carved into them and open into large underground chambers.
  • L-shaped and C-shaped structures, which served as temporary houses for visitors from other settlements who came to the region for trade.
  • Storage structures in which food (such as salt fish) and other goods (including bird feathers) were stored.
  • Other burial structures (not in sinkholes) called ‘ahu
  • Portions of the Kualaka’i Trail which served to link inland resources (for example, kalo fields) with shoreline fishing grounds. The trail was documented in early maps of Hawaii, including the well-known maps published in 1825 from surveys performed by Royal Navy Lt. Malden of the HMS Blonde.
  • The largest feature of the 6-acre park is a partially rebuilt heiau (temple). The floor of the heiau includes a natural raised coral platform in the center, which overlays at least two large underground caves.

Not all of the features of the 6-acre park are ancient. The Kalaeloa Heritage Park grounds were once owned by the United States Navy, and still today abut the Kalaeloa Airport with frequent military traffic. In 1949, a training exercise resulted in the crash of a 3-man plane, killing the men on board. Portions of the wreckage are still visible, and the heritage park plans to erect a memorial to honor the men.

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While restoration by trained archeologists will prepare the archeological features for the park, the restoration efforts by UHWO students will help to prepare the rest of the grounds to better represent the landscape that would have existed when this region was inhabited. As with our other locations, much of the land has been overrun with introduced invasive plants, in this case kiawe (Prosopis pallida), introduced as a shade tree in the 1800s, and Chinese violets (Asystasia gangetica) introduced in the 1800s as an ornamental vine. The flowers of Chinese violets are interesting in that they change color once pollinated. When the flowers first open, they are a bright shade of purple, in order to attract passing bees. Once a flower has been pollinated, it very quickly fades to white. This allows the plant to not waste resources maintaining the vitality of a flower that has already served its purpose, and also indicates to bees that the flower no longer contains nectar or pollen. It’s also rather pretty 🙂

Asystasia gangetica flowers, unpollinated (left) and pollinated (right)

Asystasia gangetica flowers, unpollinated (left) and pollinated (right)

Mature kiawe trees must be cleared with chainsaws, and much of the remaining weedy invasives can be killed with herbicide prior to replanting of native plants. Areas surrounding native trees, however, must be cleared by hand in order to not threaten the mature native vegetation. Consequently, the students first cleared a section of land surrounding a mature wiliwli tree (Erythrina sandwicensis).

Students clear Chinese violets from the area surrounding a native wiliwili tree

Students clear Chinese violets from the area surrounding a native wiliwili tree

While the students cleared this area, Bruce Koebele prepared another site for planting. Digging holes for planting can be difficult at this location, since the soil is in many places only a inch or so thick. Finding a spot deep enough to dig for planting can be tedious. For this kind of digging, the Hawaiian ‘o’o is an excellent tool. Once the wiliwili was cleared and the new ground was ready for planting, Bruce introduced the students to the plants for this location:

Wiliwili, willy-willy (Erythrina sandwicensis): this endemic tree is deciduous, which is unusual in Hawai’i. It is currently federally listed as at-risk. When it was more common, the wiliwili was the preferred choice of wood for surfboards. Flowers and seeds of the wiliwili are also used in lei. The wiliwili is more commonly found in the dry forests of Waianae, making the individuals here unusual.
Ewa ‘hinahina, ay-vuh hee-nuh hee-nuh (Achyranthes splendens var. rotundata) This shrub is federally listed as endangered and is found in only three places on O’ahu island, including Kalaeloa Heritage Park. The Hawaiian name for this plant was lost, so we know little of its use or importance in Hawaiian culture. It’s modern name comes from it’s habitat of the ‘Ewa plains, and hinahina which means grayish or silver. The leaves of this plant have small ‘hairs’ which give the plant a grayish or silver appearance and protect the plant from the heat of the sun.
Ewa Plains ‘akoko, ah-koh-koh (Chamaesyce skottsbergii var. kalaeloana) All 15 species of ‘akoko are endemic to Hawai’i. The Ewa Plains ‘akoko is the rarest, with only one wild population known, and is federally listed as endangered. Restoration efforts are critical for maintaining this species in the wild.
Aweoweo, ah-vay-oh-vay-oh (Chenopodium oahuense) Aweoweo is also the name of a Hawaiian fish. The aweoweo shrub shares the name because of the distinct fishy smell of the aweoweo flowers. This shrub is particularly adapted to the coralline soils of the ‘Ewa plain and is endemic to Hawai’i.

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The wiliwili trees were planted near the stumps of recently eradicated kiawe trees. If a particular spot provided enough water and nutrients to support a mature kiawe tree, it is assumed that spot could also support a mature wiliwili. The other plants were planted wherever an ‘o’o indicated the necessary soil depth. EwaHinahinaI was also very excited to revisit some of the plants my students planted last semester! So far as I could tell, all the plants we planted were not only still alive, but doing quite well!  Above is a particularly vigorous Ewa ‘hinahina.

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