LIHUE — Buying local plants to serve as Christmas trees this season is a unique twist on the holiday tradition, boosts Kauai businesses — and could help protect the island from invasive species.
“We know for sure that Christmas trees have brought in the western yellow jacket — the Mainland yellow jacket species that’s been established here,” said Rachel Smith of the Kauai Invasive Species Committee.
Now, it’s slugs that are the main concern when it comes to invasive species hitching a ride in imported Christmas trees.
“The slugs contain a pathogen for rat lungworm disease which is a potential issue for the whole state,” Smith said. “It’s a parasite and the slug eats kale or something and leaves behind the parasite. If you don’t wash the kale, it messes with your brain.”
The first shipment of Christmas trees this year arrived on Oahu in mid-November and nine of the more than 50 containers of trees contained slugs found by inspectors.
“If they find one tree that has something in it, then that whole container has to be put aside and the vendor gets the option to have it sent back or comprehensively checked,” Smith said.
The trees in which slugs were found underwent treatment, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture.
DOA estimates between 110,000 and 130,000 trees have come into Hawaii this holiday season; last year the number was estimated at 130,000.
“I get it — I grew up in Missouri where it snows and you have a live tree, and you want to keep that tradition,” Smith said. “But it’s a high risk when we have so many great alternatives here.”
One such alternative is the Norfolk Island pine. Known as the Hawaiian Christmas tree, it is available in various sizes and at various nurseries around the island.
“It’s a pine tree that doesn’t have the scent, so you can just burn a candle,” Smith said. “That’s what I do. I have my evergreen- scented candle and I’ve had the same Norfolk pine every Christmas since I’ve been here.”
She just keeps putting the tree in a different pot and now it’s about 6-feet-tall.
Kauai Nursery and Landscaping sells Norfolk pine trees in several sizes. Staff members said customers also buy Italian Cypress and the native Hawaiian plant alahee as Christmas tree alternatives.
“We get people a lot and every day we sell a couple (trees),” said Sandra Nishek, nursery assistant. “Mostly it’s the Norfolk pine because it’s similar in shape.”
Podocarpus, or the plum pine, is another alternative Christmas tree, and Nishek said people also buy poinsettias and decorative blooming azalea plants.
“What about a fruit tree, like a nice kumquat or a citrus tree?” Nishek suggested.
For those who buy a traditional Christmas tree, Kauai Nursery and Landscaping annually collects the trees after the season and turns them into mulch.
“We take our big flatbed truck and park it out in our driveway so people can pull in and toss the tree into the truck,” Nishek said. “If it’s too heavy, they can leave it next to the truck, as long as it’s completely undressed.”
Usually the truck is set up in the driveway the day after Christmas and is left there for several months.
When it comes to holidays, Hawaii usually does it differently anyway, Smith said, so buying a native plant from a local vendor could be a good way to shake up traditions.
“These trees that we sell, they’re all potted so they can be installed into your yard after the season, or upsized into a larger pot,” Nishek said. “It’s a nice, green alternative.”