The rain that brings the fragrance of the lehua of Puna (Pukui 1983:172, verse 1587)
Puna is known for its groves of hala and ʻōhiʻa-lehua trees. This ʻōlelo no‘eau refers to the forests of Puna, which attract clouds to drench the district with many rains, refreshing and enriching the Puna water table, and sustaining the life cycle of all living things in Puna. (McGregor)
While the Puna moku (district) does not have running streams, it does have many inland and shoreline springs continuously fed by rains borne upon the northeast tradewinds. (McGregor)
Another ‘Ōlelo Noe‘au notes “Puna paia ʻala i ka hala. Puna, with walls fragrant with pandanus blossoms. Puna, Hawai’i, is a place of hala and lehua forests.
In olden days the people would stick the bracts of hala into the thatching of their houses to bring some of the fragrance indoors. (Pukui 1983:301, verse 2749)
“Puna on Hawaiʻi Island was the land first reached by Pāʻao, and here in Puna he built his first heiau for his god Ahaʻula and named it Ahaʻula [Wahaʻula.]”
“It was a luakini (large heiau where human sacrifice was offered). From Puna, Pāʻao went on to land in Kohala, at Puʻuepa. He built a heiau there, called Moʻokini.” (Kamakau)
One story tells that Hāʻena, a small bay near the northern boundary of Puna, is said to be the birthplace of hula. The goddess Hiʻiaka is said to have been instructed to dance hula on the beach there.
Puna is said to inspire hula because of the natural movements of waves, wind and trees. (Other stories suggest hula was started in other areas of the Islands.) (McGregor)
Early settlement patterns in the Islands put people on the windward sides of the islands, typically along the shoreline. However, in Puna, much of the district’s coastal areas have thin soils and there are no good deep water harbors. The ocean along the Puna coast is often rough and windblown. (Escott)
As a result, settlement patterns in Puna tend to be dispersed and without major population centers. Villages in Puna tended to be spread out over larger areas and often are inland, and away from the coast, where the soil is better for agriculture. (Escott)
This was confirmed on William Ellis’ travel around the island in the early 1800s, “Hitherto we had travelled close to the sea-shore, in order to visit the most populous villages in the districts through which we had passed.”
“But here receiving information that we should find more inhabitants a few miles inland, than nearer the sea, we thought it best to direct our course towards the mountains.” (Ellis, 1826)
Alexander later (1891) noted, “The first settlement met with after leaving Hilo by the sea coast road, is at Keaʻau, a distant 10 miles where there are less than a dozen inhabitants …”
“… the next is at Makuʻu, distant 14 miles where there are a few more, after which there is occasionally a stray hut or two, until Halepuaʻa and Koaʻe are reached, 21 miles from Hilo, at which place there is quite a village”. (Alexander in Escott)
“Nearly all the food consumed by the residents of this District is raised in the interior belt to which access is had by the ancient paths or trails leading from the sea coast.”
“The finest sweet potatoes are raised in places that look more like banks of cobble stones or piles of macadam freshly dumped varying from the size of a walnut to those as large as ones fist. In these holes there is not a particle of soil to be seen”. (Alexander, 1891)
Puna was famous as a district for some of its valuable products, including “hogs, gray tapa cloth (‘eleuli), tapas made of māmaki bark, fine mats made of young pandanus blossoms (‘ahuhinalo), mats made of young pandanus leaves (ʻahuao), and feathers of the ʻōʻō and mamo birds”. (McGregor)
An historic trail once ran from the modern day Lili‘uokalani Gardens area to Hāʻena along the Puna coast. The trail is often referred to as the old Puna Trail and/or Puna Road. There is an historic trail/cart road that is also called the Puna Trail (Ala Hele Puna) and/or the Old Government Road. (Escott)
It likely incorporated segments of the traditional Hawaiian trail system often referred to as the ala loa or ala hele. The full length of the Puna Trail, or Old Government Road, might have been constructed or improved just before 1840. The alignment was mapped by the Wilkes Expedition of 1804-41. (Escott)
With Western contact, extensive tracts of Puna’s landscape were transformed, first with sandalwood export, which began in 1790 and reached its peak between 1810 and 1825. (Puna CDP)
After Hawai‘i’s first forestry law in 1839 restricted the removal of sandalwood trees, cattle ranching and coffee cultivation became the leading commercial activities. By 1850, agriculture diversified with the cultivation of potatoes, onions, pumpkins, oranges and sugar molasses. (Puna CDP)
Before 1900, coffee was the chief agricultural crop in the area. Over 6,000-acres of coffee trees were owned by approximately 200-independent coffee planters and 6 incorporated companies. (HSPA)
Soon, sugarcane was in large-scale production. The dominant operation in Puna was the Puna Sugar Company, whose plantation fields extended for ten miles along both sides of Highway 11 between Keaʻau and Mountain View, as well as in the Pāhoa and Kapoho areas.
Initially founded in 1899 as Olaʻa Sugar Company, it was later (1960) renamed Puna Sugar Company. The coffee trees were uprooted to make way for sugarcane.
ʻŌhiʻa forests also had to be cleared, field rock piled, land plowed by mules or dug up by hand with a pick. Sugarcane was in large-scale production; the sugar mill operation ran for just over 80 years, until 1984.
Macadamia nuts and papaya were introduced in 1881 and 1919, respectively. Since the closure of the Puna Sugar Company, papaya and macadamia nut production have become the leading crops of Puna. About 97% of the state’s papaya production occurs in Puna, primarily in the Kapoho area.
Another thing growing in Puna is housing. Between 1958 and 1973, more than 52,500-individual lots were created – at least 40-substandard Puna subdivisions were created.
As a comparison, Oʻahu is about 382,500-acres in size; the district of Puna on the island of Hawaiʻi is about 320,000-acres in size – almost same-same.