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Land Management

Horizontal Vegetation Communities


Ancient Hawaiian life was based around the ahupua'a system of land management, which evolved to protect the upland water resources that sustained human life.

A typical ahupua'a, or land division, was wedge-shaped and extended from the mountains to the sea.  As water flowed from the upland forest, down through the ahupua'a, it passed from the wao akua, the realm of the gods, to the wao kanaka, the realm of man, where it sustained agriculture, aquaculture, and other human uses.

Water was a gift from the gods, and all Hawaiians took an active part in its use and conservation.  Today, water is still the most important product of the forest, but its supply has always been so plentiful relative to our needs, and so cheap, that our awareness of its value has dimmed.

Fresh water is not an unlimited resource, and its ready availability, quality, and sustainability are linked to the health of our forested watersheds.

Exerted from "Last Stand - The Vanishing Hawaiian Forest" prepared by The Nature Conservancy, Hawaii.  For a free copy, contact TNC.

Nature's Boundaries

Hawaiian cultural traditions reflect a long, close-standing relationship with the native forest.

Mountain ridges running from summit to sea marked the vertical boundaries of the ahupua'a, the ancient Hawaiian system of land management.  Horizontal bands of different vegetation communities served various functions for religion and everyday life.

Even today, political boundaries and natural resource management decisions are based on some of these ancient natural demarcations, just as they were hundreds of years ago.

Horizontal Vegetation Communities

Horizontal divisions, unlike the vertical divisions of ahupua'a, did not use land features to demarcate boundaries, but used instead the vegetation growth.

Vegetation growth, or the forest, was the food source, and therefore a vital system for the continuum of life and life cycles.  The trees housed the seeds or spores for regeneration.  They also acted as food sources for birds, insects, animals, and man. 

The forest provided vegetation used for medicinal and spiritual purposes, adornment, housing, dyes, clothing, games, and many other useful things.

The typical horizontal divisions that were recognized by our ancestors are still recognized today.

Kuahiwi.  The mountaintop.  A sacred area because of its height.

Kualono.  The region near the mountaintop.  Very little vegetation grows in this area.  The mamane and naio are the only hardy trees to grow here.  Both of these are hardwood trees.  The flower of the Mamane was special to the ali'i; when wanting a special lei he sent his runners to fetch this flower because of its shape and yellow color.  'A'ali'i can also be found at this height.

Wao ma'ukele.  The region named because of the wet, soggy ground.  This area is located in the rain belt of the island, especially on the ko'olau side of each  island.  The trees of this area are the very large koa and 'ohi'a, varieties of lobelia, and mamane.  These are the typical trees of the area.  There are other trees, but the koa and the 'ohi'a dominate the canopy.

Wao akua.  The forested region below the wao ma'ukele.  This is said to be occupied by the spirits of the forest.  Mankind seldom ventured into this area during ancestral times, except when a particular kind of tree was needed and could not be found elsewhere.  The large trees acquired from the wao akua and the wao ma'ukele deserved substantial offerings.  This is the region where the forests had a greater variety of trees.  The trees in this are should be healthy so as to supply seeds and regenerate new growth to keep the forest alive.  Some of the trees and plants found are ho'awa, ko'iko, maile, maua, alani, koa, and 'ohi'a.

Wao kanaka.  The forested region ma kai (towards the ocean) of the wao akua.  This area was frequented by man.  He found wood for weapons, making his house, tools, surfboards, and canoe accessories; he also harvested dye, collected medicine and bird feathers, gathered vegetation for lei, gathered vegetation for the kuahu, material for making rope and many other useful things.  The trees in the wao akua are also found in this area, but the trees may be smaller.  Other flora found in this area are pilo, hapu'u, papala, hau kuahiwi, palapalai, olapa, and mamaki, to name a few.

Kula.  The upland grassy plains.  Some areas of an island had a very large kula area, as opposed to other areas that had very narrow or no grassy land section at all.  A few of the most well known plants of the kula area are 'ilima ma'o, 'ama'u, 'a'ali'i, uluhe, and pili.

Kahakai.  The edge of the ocean.  At the kahakai were found the niu, hala, kauma'oa, kamani, hau, milo, naupaka, lama, and alahe'e.  All these plants were useful to the Hawaiian and made life bearable for man on these islands.

Exerted from "Wao Akua" prepared by the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Department of Land and Natural Resources.  To purchase a copy, contact DLNR.