Some calling for ban of ohia from 2016 Merrie Monarch Festival - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Some calling for ban of ohia from 2016 Merrie Monarch Festival

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BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) -

The Merrie Monarch Festival is just around the corner and some are pushing for a ban on one of the competition's most cherished costume adornments.

The lehua blossom from the ohia tree is both iconic and symbolic in the Hawaiian culture. Both the blossom and liko, or new leaves, are traditionally worn in hula competitions.

But the ohia is facing a serious threat from a fungal disease. Thousands of acres of ohia forest have been affected by the infestation on the Big Island.

And scientists say opting not to use ohia at the festival would be a significant step to stopping the spread of the disease to other islands.

"During the Merrie Monarch Festival, people are gathering lei material, both on their own island as well as on the island of Hawaii, they could easily spread that disease to their own islands,” said Sam Gon III, senior scientist and cultural advisor for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.

Kumu Hula Ed Collier has been a judge at the festival for about 15 years. He said the proposal saddens him as well as other hula and cultural practitioners.

"For years it's been used, and now for us to be told we cannot use it, It's detrimental to our culture," Collier said.

Collier said the iconic blossom doesn't dictate the hula or the festival. But it will not be the same without it, he said.  

"It is part of hula, it is part of our lives, and now we get told we can't use it. Again, this should have been cared for a long time ago, when it was first detected," Collier said.

The disease has already destroyed more than 34,000 acres on the Big Island. It is considered by many to be the most important tree in the state because native, endangered birds live and feed on them. Gon said the ban would only be temporary, but could have lasting effects.

“If you think about it, that could be one of the most dangerous things to do. To go to the island of Hawaii, find yourself and your halau in an infested area that has this disease and it would be ironic for cultural practitioners, for hula dancers who revere ohia as a symbol of Laka, of Pele, of other deities of hula, to be the ones responsible for spreading this disease to their own island," Gon said.

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