Kiawe

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Prosopis pallida [Fabaceae]
Origin: Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador

Kiawe, a naturalized species of mesquite, is probably the most common low-elevation dry land tree in Hawaii. The story goes that in 1828 a tree was grown from seed on the Catholic Mission Grounds on Fort Street in Honolulu, and that all the kiawe in Hawaii descend from this single specimen–and that's a lot of kiawe.

The term "kiawe forest" is not an exaggeration. In nearly all dry land regions in Hawaii below 2000-feet in elevation, fire, cattle and a declining water table long ago destroyed the once diverse native forests. In many of these areas kiawe has taken over, leading to vast acreages populated only by kiawe and a variety of hardy weeds.

Kiawe possesses a kind of austere beauty. It survives because its roots can reach deep into the water table, and it is not killed by brackish water. When rainfall is abundant the trees are green and lush; during times of drought they dry up, but they survive.

Seed pods are used as cattle feed. Indeed, this is one reason the trees have become so widespread: seeds consumed by cattle pass unharmed through the digestive system and are excreted over wide areas. Kiawe is also used for fence posts, firewood and charcoal, and is favored for smoking meat.

Watch out for kiawe thorns! Your rubber flip-flops will not protect you if you step on a fallen twig. These thorns are well-known for piercing car tires. An often repeated conversation in Hawaii asks the question: why are kiawe used in beach parks? The answer is probably that the trees existed before the parks were created, but it's ironic that thorny trees are commonly seen where people like to run about in bare feet.

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