This past week, the Chinese Courtyard welcomed a new potted plant: a sandalwood tree, or ‘iliahi in Hawaiian. While a new resident of the garden, it comes with a rich history tied to both the islands and the museum.

In the 19th century, sandalwood became the first major export of the islands. (However, people first learned of Hawai‘i’s sandalwood forests back in the late 1700s.) The Chinese, in particular, were fond of the tree, using the wood to make incense, medicine, carvings and more. Trade over the ‘iliahi went into overdrive when the fur trade began to decrease. King Kamehameha I and then his son Liloliho tried to profit off of the tree, but the Chinese assessed brokerage and port fees to make it difficult. Eventually, the exploitation of the tree would result in overharvesting and debt. A sandalwood tax was put in effect onto those in Hawai‘i, and many lost their possessions or were overworked from harvesting in order to meet the tax. By the 1830s, sandalwood forests were pretty much decimated.

Marilyn Smith in front of the sandalwood tree, with a smiling Fred in the background.

Marilyn Smith in front of the sandalwood tree, with a smiling Fred in the background.

However, pockets of sandalwood trees have survived throughout the state. HoMA docents Marilyn and Fred Smith, who lived on the Big Island for many years, encountered one of these pockets and subsequently fell in love with the tree and the effort to increase its population.

Marilyn graciously wanted to donate one to the museum and in addition to the trade relationship between the islands and China, had a special reason for choosing to place the tree in the Chinese Courtyard. During her tours, she loves to take visitors to the John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery: The Arts of Hawai’i and then eventually to the Chinese Courtyard, where she tells the story of the stones in the garden. “These stones were the ballast used in the ships returning from China after having delivered a supply of sandalwood to Canton,” Jan Tucker, docents and tour manager, says. 

The tree helps tell the history of the stones and the sad story of the sandalwood trade,” Tucker adds. 

In the John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery: The Arts of Hawai’i, there is actually an akua kā‘ai made of ‘iliahi wood on display. During religious observances, akua, or supernatural beings, manifest themselves in ki‘i, which are like vessels for their mana (divine power). This ki‘i is carved in the Kona style and is from Hale o Keawe, a heiau at Pu‘uhonua, which is a sacred site and once a city refuge. 

"Akua Ka‘ai"  late 18th century-early 19th century ‘Ilishi (sandalwood) Purchase, 1962 (3075.1)

“Akua Ka‘ai”
late 18th century-early 19th century
‘Ilishi (sandalwood)
Purchase, 1962 (3075.1)

This actually isn’t the first time a sandalwood tree has tried to make its home in the Chinese Courtyard either, according to Tucker. The last time failed, possibly because it wasn’t known that the ‘iliahi tree is a bit of a parasite and requires a “steady diet” of nutrients from a host plant.

But Marilyn has been taking good care of the now thriving plant in their Kailua home. When dropping off the ‘iliahi, the Smiths also left a few host plants for it.

On Tuesday, the Smiths came in for their weekly tours and were thrilled when they saw the plant happy and potted. “Such proud parents,” Tucker says.