Home » Service Learning » UHWO Service Learning: Kalaeloa Heritage Park

UHWO Service Learning: Kalaeloa Heritage Park

Last weekend, my intro biology students at UH West O’ahu completed their first service learning event at Kalaeloa Heritage Park, an archaeological 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. A six-acre section housing 51 documented archaeological features is being prepared as an educational park which will eventually be open to the public. Our role is to restore the vegetation of the park to represent the flora that was present when the site was occupied and eradicate the invasive vegetation that has encroached on the site.

Kalaeloa Heritage Park

Prior to the restoration, Shad Kane took the students on a tour of the park, including the eleven primary archaeological features which will form the focus of the park when it is open to the public. Shad emphasized to the students that the story of the Kalaeloa residents is one of the farmer, the fisherman, and the gatherer, not one of chiefs or royals. 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. Consequently, the archaeological 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.
  • 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, which also served as places of personal prayer.
  • Portions of the Kualaka’i Trail which served to link inland resources (for example, kalo fields) with coastal 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 gathering and meeting room. The floor of the structure includes a natural raised coral platform in the center, which overlays at least two large underground caves. Shad emphasized that since this was not the home of a chief, the structure is not a true heiau (temple) but was clearly a structure of importance to the residents.

Not all of the features of the 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 air traffic. In 1949, a training exercise resulted in the crash of a 3-person 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.

This year, the park had a new addition. Bruce has prepared placards for all of our native plantings, documenting the biology and cultural uses of the plants at the park.

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Our Previous Plantings

Last semester, we tried an experimental planting method called long-stem planting, where much of the stem is planted under ground. Studies had suggested that planting the stem underground encourages growth of adventitious roots from the stem, increasing the plant’s chances of success. We planted ‘a’ali’i and ko’oloa’ula in both traditional and long-stem methods and tracked their success. Though our sample size is small, the long-stem plantings did not seem to fare any better than the traditional method. For both planting methods, a few died, and a few are faring well. Consequently, we’ll stick with the traditional planting method at this site, because the soil is quite shallow, making long-stem planting more logistically difficult.


A long-stem ko’oloa’ula (pink flag) and a traditional naio (blue flag)


Naio planted by my students in Fall 2014

One of my favorite parts of our service learnings at Kalaeloa is revisiting our old plantings. Every semester, I see how our plants from previous visits are thriving and taking over. I see fewer invasive plants choking out the archeological features. I see new native plants cropping up that we didn’t even intentionally plant, but which have spread from the seeds of ones we did plant, that are now mature.

I find that I take a lot of personal pride in our efforts here, and it means a lot to me to see the native flora retake their place in this park.  I look forward to the day the park opens and all my students’ hard work is visible to the public.


This little lonomea is one of my favorites

This semester, we planted the following plants:

Wiliwili will-ee-will-ee (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 and on volcanic soil, making the individuals here (on calcareous soil) unusual. The plants we planted today were grown from seeds of the mature wiliwili already growing in the park.

Ewa hinahina eh-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 it’s current 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. Loss of the Hawaiian name means we know little about its historical use or importance in Hawaiian culture.

Naio, nye-oh (Myoporum stellatum) This rare endemic shrub is found only in Kalaeloa and Nanakuli, and may soon be found only in Kalaeloa.  Despite being quite rare, naio is only listed as ‘at-risk.’ It was sometimes substituted for ‘iliahi during the sandalwood trade, giving it the unfortunate nickname of ‘bastard sandalwood.’

‘A’ali’i ah-ah-lee-ee (Dodonaea viscosa): one of my personal favorites, due to its pretty red fruits and its reputation for bending without breaking. This second trait led to the use of ‘a’ali’i as a description of a person who is strong, resilient, or loyal. Previously, it was thought that the plant did not exist in this region, but recent pollen analyses of the nearby Ordy Pond indicate that the species did reside in this area.


Flowering maiapilo

Maiapilo, mye-uh-pee-loh (Capparis sandwichiana) This endemic shrub is named for its stinky (‘pilo’ means a swampy or otherwise unpleasant smell) and banana-shaped (‘maia’ is the name for banana) fruits.  Maiapilo are closely related to capers and are federally listed as ‘at-risk.’  In early excavation at KHP, Shad discovered wild maiapilo already growing in the area, indicating our little plants will do well here. Maiapilo also attract birds to eat the seeds, which will not only spread more maiapilo plants, but will also contribute to a healthy ecosystem in the park. Some of the more mature maiapilo in the park were in flower when were there.


The students also removed invasive koa haole that are creeping in along the road. Bruce will return in a week or so with an herbicide to ensure all the koa haole roots are destroyed.

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