Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Eureka! Koa is a Superstar
Getting to travel into rural areas in The Third World gives the traveler a perspective you won’t find in the glossy photos of glamorous magazines. Whereas most people can relate to a stroll along the Champs-Élysées and under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, or mimic tossing a coin into the Tivoli Fountain of Rome merely by thumbing through the pages of Condé Nast, some of the memorable sights in the remote areas of Third World countries are mostly confined to nostalgic reveries. Of course, everybody has their own lifestyle taste for travel and excitement. For a Footloose Forester who had a lifelong interest in “discovering” exotic trees and shrubs for the first time, the Eureka! moments were few and literally far between. And most of those moments were in The Third World.
The balsa airplanes of his youth turned into a Eureka! moment the very first time he saw a healthy young balsa tree in the forest in Costa Rica. And what he knew as a Texas mesquite tree turned into a Eureka! moment along the banks of the Senegal River in West Africa. Hundreds of California redwood trees along the streets of Geneva, Switzerland wasn’t in The Third World, but it was a Eureka! moment when Footloose Forester first saw them up close.
Plant species are adaptable enough to be transported and grown successfully in many places in the world that are outside of their native ranges. To be sure, frost intolerant species from the tropics may not grow in tundra conditions, but there is every reason to believe that most species can survive in greenhouses, when temperature, humidity, and light requirements are understood and adhered to. In some fortuitous situations, imported and/or exotic species can thrive in the outdoor conditions and native soils in the landscapes of lands far from their native ranges.
Many countries have been growing plantations of exotic eucalypts and various imported pine species so successfully and for so long, that their presence in local landscapes might be taken for granted. Botanists describe those adapted species as naturalized. The list of naturalized plant species is long, although many of the species may or may not be uncommon. Of the more common names that are recognized as naturalized outside of their native ranges are eucalypts, pines, teak, ginkgo, and various acacias. This chronicle is about one obscure species of acacia that has a limited history of out-planting far from its native range. With any luck its spectacular success in Rwanda will become a botanical Eureka! discovery that encourages botanists and horticulturists in other countries to add it to their inventory of experimental plantings. Needless to say, performance may vary in various soils and in different climate regimes, but it just might be the next staple among fast growing, commercially important timber trees in tropical countries. In Rwanda it started out with completely different objectives in mind.
Acacia koa is native to Hawaii and is known as the Monarch of Hawaiian Forests. What makes it important there is its valuable wood when used in the manufacture of high quality furniture. Demand for the ever diminishing koa is so high in Hawaii that a consumer can expect to pay over $1000 for custom-made furniture. The Footloose Forester personally knows a self-employed carpenter on Oahu who decided long ago to limit his carpentry business to the manufacture of hand-made koa furniture.
In Rwanda, however, the experimental planting of koa in the 1990s at the Butare experiment station was based not on its commercial value for furniture but its prospective value in a suite of exotic tropical nitrogen-fixing trees that might be adaptable at high altitude in highly acid soils and still provide edible leaf fodder and nutritious seed pods. Other uses as firewood, local construction of farm implements, erosion control, and other all-purpose objectives were not evaluated, per se, but are always in the mix of values of promising species that are selected for promoting agroforestry.
The fact that after only a few years in the array of multi-species plantings, Acacia koa was among the few clearly superior species in terms of height growth, straightness, stem diameter, fodder production, and resistance to disease…made for a Eureka! discovery. Footloose Forester hopes that the quality of its wood for construction purposes will also be realized as the trees mature.
Along with other promising agroforestry species, the early experimental results at Butare, Rwanda were published in 1995. The research reference is: A. I. Niang, E. Styger, A. Gahamanyi, and J. Ugeziwe. International Center for Research in Agroforestry, ICRAF/ISARProject, RP. 617, Butare, Rwanda. Comparative growth of 15 exotic species and provenances in high-elevation acid soils of Rwanda.
It was gratifying to know that the experimental results are in the archives of agroforestry research. The Footloose Forester was privileged to know the chief authors, Amadou Niang and Erika Styger, both of whom were dedicated scientists and who personally pointed out the impressive growth of the Hawaiian koa in their trials at the Gatuka Research Station.
Acacia koa and an associated species, Acacia koaia, were two Hawaiian provenances that stood out among the superior producers of forage biomass. They also performed better in the acid soils with high aluminum saturation of the Rwandan uplands than most of the other species tested. Although wood quality for construction purposes was not evaluated as an objective of the trials, that eventual payoff may be realized in the future. Multipurpose tree species are sought for a variety of reasons and it remains to be seen whether koa, the Monarch of Hawaiian Forests, will one day will be celebrated with another Eureka! moment.