Alphitonia ponderosa

leaf Main Plant Information





Hawaiian Names with Diacritics

  • Kauila
  • Kauwila
  • Oʻa (Maui)

Hawaiian Names

  • Kauila
  • Kauwila
  • Oa (Maui)


  • Alphitonia ponderosa var. auwahiensis
  • Alphitonia ponderosa var. costata
  • Alphitonia ponderosa var. grandifolia
  • Alphitonia ponderosa var. kauila
  • Alphitonia ponderosa var. lanaiensis

Did You Know…?

Kauwila is one of the hardest of all native woods and used in place of metal, which was unknown among the early Hawaiians. In fact, it is so dense it will sink in water.

leaf Plant Characteristics

Distribution Status


Endangered Species Status

No Status

Plant Form / Growth Habit

  • Tree

Mature Size, Height (in feet)

  • Tree, Small, 15 to 30
  • Tree, Medium, 30 to 50
  • Tree, Large, Greater than 50

Life Span

Long lived (Greater than 5 years)

Landscape Uses

  • Container
  • Provides Shade
  • Specimen Plant

Additional Landscape Use Information

Kauwila is an uncommon native tree is rarely seen in landscapes. As plants become more available, these beautiful trees should be grown more in landscapes.

Plant Produces Flowers


leaf Flower Characteristics

Flower Type

Not Showy

Flower Colors

  • Greenish-White

Additional Flower Color Information

Rusty to whitish tomentose (fuzzy) penduncles (flower stems) with greenish-white flowers.

Additional Blooming Period and Fruiting Information

Fruit is black when ripe and very hard. Seeds are brown.

leaf Leaf Characteristics

Plant texture

  • Medium
  • Coarse

Leaf Colors

  • Dark Green

Additional Leaf Color Information

Somewhat glossy, occasionally turning white with age.

leaf Pests and Diseases

leaf Growth Requirements

Water Requirements

  • Moist

Additional Water Information

When potted, keep well watered.

Soil must be well drained


Light Conditions

  • Full sun


  • Clay
  • Cinder
  • Organic

leaf Environmental Information

Natural Range

  • Kauaʻi
  • Oʻahu
  • Molokaʻi
  • Maui
  • Hawaiʻi

Natural Zones (Elevation in feet, Rainfall in inches)

  • 150 to 1000, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 1000 to 1999, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 2000 to 2999, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 3000 to 3999, 0 to 50 (Dry)
  • 4000 to 4999, 0 to 50 (Dry)


  • Terrestrial

Additional Habitat Information

Kauwila occurs in dry to mesic forests from about 785 to 4100 feet and is rare throughout the range except on Kauaʻi.

leaf Special Features and Information

General Information

Kauwila or kauila (Alphitonia ponderosa) is a member of the Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae) which include other native members such as the same named kauila or kauwila (Colubrina oppositifolia), the indigenous ʻānapanapa (Colubrina asiatica), and three rare endemic species of Gouania.


The genus name Alphitonia is from the Greek alphiton, barley meal, in reference to the dry, mealy quality of the mesocarp (part of the fruit) of these plants.

The species name ponderosa is Latin for heavy, weighty, significant.

Hawaiian Names:

The names Kauila and Kauwila are different spellings both for this species and its close relative Colubrina oppositifolia.

Oʻa is a Maui name for this tree.

Background Information

Kauwila wood is a beautiful reddish color with black streaks and is very hard, strong and durable. [2] One of the heaviest native woods which sinks in water.

Early Hawaiian Use

Early Hawaiians used this hard wood* for handles for stone chisels, beams for huts (pupupu hale), kapa beaters, javelins or spears, digging sticks (ʻōʻō), carrying poles, and tall straight portable poles for kāhili. [1,6,7,8]


Both species of kauila were used medicinally for kūhewa (stroke, as of heart failure, apoplexy). [5]


Additionally, this species (Alphitonia pondersoa) was used to make ʻumeke, two-foot long stringed instrument. [9]

Is Kauila Poisonous?

Its wood was one of three kinds from trees on Mauna Loa, Molokaʻi, that were rumored to be poisonous from that location alone, and were used in black magic. The three trees were called kālai pāhoa; the others were ʻohe (Polyscias sp.) and nīoi (Eugenia sp.). [10]

Today, we know these trees to be harmless.


* Both species of kauila or kauwila, Alphitonia ponderosa and Colubrina oppositifolia, were used and also called by the same name by early Hawaiians. When the wood is freshly cut, Colubrina oppositifolia has a yellowish sapwood and a light, reddish brown heartwood; Alphitonia pondersoa has red wood throughout with a light sapwood and a dark heartwood. Unfortunately, since both appear the same when dried the color differences fade over the years and can create confusion as to which species was used for particular carvings in some cases. [4,8]

Modern Use

The lintels above the windows of the Hawaiian Missionary Printing House, built in 1821, were made of this wood and was quite sound when removed for restoration in 1972. [8]

Rounded polished rods of this wood became hairpins for women. [8]

There is some limited wood working today and has been seen to be fashioned into bowls, commanding high prices. [3]

Additional References

[1] "Arts and Crafts of Hawaii" by Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter H. Buck), pages 12, 38, 170.
[2] "The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands" by J.F. Rock, page 287.

[3] [accessed 12/9/09]

[4] "Lāʻau Hawaiʻi--Traditonal Hawaiian Uses of Plants" by Isabella Aiona Abbott, pages 11-12.

[5] "Native Hawaiian Medicine--Volume III" by The Rev. Kaluna M. Kaʻaiakamanu, page 58.

[6] "Resource Units in Hawaiian Culture" by Donald D. Kilolani Mitchell, pages 79,112, 168.

[7] "In Gardens of Hawaii" by Marie C. Neal, page 541.

[8] "Common Forest Trees of Hawaii (Native and Introduced)" by Elbert L. Little Jr. and Roger G. Skolmen, page 212.

[9] "Kauai Natural Area Reserve Ethnobotanical Guide: Hawaiian Flora," a pamphlet provided by the Dept. of Forestry & Wildlife.

[10] Hawaiian Dictionaries online [Accessed on 9/17/13]



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