The Pine Trees of Lanai

Pine trees on LanaiWhen you think of Hawaii, one of the first images which pops into your head is probably a palm tree on a white sand beach. Indeed, Hawaii does have its share of palm trees. On the island of Lanai, however, the tree you will be most likely to find isn’t a palm tree….it is a pine tree.

The story of the pine trees of Lanai is one of the interesting stories I come across when traveling that shows how people can find innovative solutions to their problems.

The first thing you need to know is Lanai is a rather dry island. It has the least amount of rainfall of all the Hawaiian islands because the mountains on Molokai and Maui capture most of the rainfall which comes its way.

Pine tree at the ranchThe first pine tree on the island was a Norfolk Pine which was planted in 1878. In 1911, manager of the ranch on Lanai, George C. Munro, noticed that water was dripping from the pine tree onto a tin roof. George figured that the pine tree was taking water out of the fog and condensing it. He figured that if they planted more pine trees, it could bring much needed water to the island and make use of the heavy fog which would often collect near the high points on the island.

The pine trees they received weren’t Norfolk Pines, however, but rather were Cook Island pines.

Pine trees at sunset on LanaiThe reason why pine trees are uniquely suited to extracting moisture from the atmosphere has to do with the surface area of the pine needles. For a normal broad leaf tree, the surface area would be the area of each side of the leaf. Pine needles are much smaller and so have more surface area for a given volume of leaf. To get a good idea, just think of the amount of butter it would take to cover an uncut loaf of bread vs. a loaf which as been sliced. The sliced loaf has a much greater surface area.

Nature uses this trick in many places where surface area matters. Some of the best examples would be the lumps and ridges in your intestines (to maximize the area where nutrient absorption can take place) and the surface of your brain.

Today you can see Cook Island pines all over Lanai City and on the highest ridge on the island, Lanaihale. It is estimated that each tree creates 200 gallons of fresh water for the island each day, all of which is taken right out of thin air.

If you ever find yourself on the island of Lanai and you take a drink of water or use the shower, take a moment to remember the humble Cook Island Pine which is making it possible.

15 Replies to “The Pine Trees of Lanai”

  1. I toured Lanai city many years ago and was told a slightly different story.
    They said the island was dry because it wasn’t high enough. The tall pines raised the elevation of the island & increased rainfall.

  2. I just saw the island for the first time over this past weekend. The couple I stayed with have a home there they visit many times a year. It belongs in the husband’s family and used to be a plantation home for the pineapple field workers. He told me the story of the pine trees which prompted me to look up more on the subject. It brought me to your page. Thank you for such interesting info!
    i had heard bits and pieces about Lanai but could not even imagine what it looked like until I arrived. It is such a completely different landscape then I would that ever imagined especially the island being part of Hawaii. There is very little on the island but still there was so much to learn about it. I understand that David Murdoch sold the island recently to Larry Ellison of Oracle. He has done some nice things for the children having areas to play and so on but it does not sound like the people who have lived there for so long want anything to change. They appreciate it the way it is. I hope any changes he has in mind benefit the people more than it benefits him. I learned so much history just in the brief time I was on Lanai.

  3. Gary,

    You brought back some memories.. I had an amazing time visiting these majestic trees.. Wish I had pictures to share but I kinda lost my camera on that trip.. ;)

  4. This is very interesting. About pine trees but still it is interesting. I like the pine needles.

  5. This story is intellectual, combining humanity and science. How is the trees’ extracting water used today?

  6. I really miss pine trees. Going up in South Carolina they were all over the place now I never get to see them other than in photos. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

  7. Enjoyed reading your post, Gary. What an amazing observation George Munro had with the pine fog drip. I’ve been reading his book, The Story of Lanai. He writes about this discovery and his vision for planting more. He said that he would raise seedlings until they were 3 feet high. Then, he’d load pack mules with 12 trees, lead them up the trail to Lana’ihale and plant them 30 feet apart.

  8. Well I guess I learn something new everyday. Thanks for the info on pine trees Gary. I never new that about the pine needles :)

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