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April 29, 2022

Earth Day 2022: 4th Grade Students Plant Wiliwili Trees

In celebration of Earth Day this year, Danyel Erickson, fourth-grade teacher at Lanai High & Elementary School, decided to take a hands-on approach to the annual holiday that raises awareness about environmental issues impacting our planet. After months of germinating seeds, she and her class of 16 students outplanted native plants at the Keone enclosure on Earth Day, April 22, 2022.

Background of the project

Danyel was challenged at the beginning of the year to plan a project that related to the school’s three areas of focus — growth mindset, student success criteria and place-based learning — while incorporating the study of Hawaiian culture and native and non-native plants. As an advocate for restoration efforts, Danyel decided the project should focus on larger pressing environmental issues on Lanai, such as erosion and reforestation efforts.

“I’m all about Earth Day every day,” says Danyel. “Planting trees and picking up trash is pretty much something I talk about all the time. It’s something I want to instill in the students, because I feel like global warming is a problem that is going to be in their hands soon. Instilling these values in the students now helps them when they become older.”

Tag team with an expert

Danyel knew the class needed the help of an expert, so she turned to Kari Bogner, the botany program manager at Pulama Lanai. After brainstorming a list of native plant species together, then considering growth success rate as well as student interest, Kari and the students decided to outplant the wiliwili tree (Erythrina sandwicensis). Historically, the wiliwili tree was harvested for surfboards, and the seeds were used to make colorful long-lasting leis. Although wiliwili seeds germinate quickly, the trees have been threatened in the past by gall wasp infestations and are currently being threatened by habitat degradation, which means the wiliwili population could use a helping hand.

When the students began working on this project, they were excited by the colorful seeds and the relatively quick germination process. Each weekday since October of last year, they brought their saplings in and out of the classroom, and on Fridays, loaded up Danyel’s truck for the weekend stay at her home. The students were so attached to their saplings that they gave each one a name.

Even with all the time and dedication given to these wiliwili saplings, the class still suffered some setbacks. When the seedlings faced powdery mildew and spider mites, the students used their investigation and problem-solving skills to research what was happening and how to solve it. With the teamwork of the students, Danyel’s supervision and Kari’s guidance through trial and error, most of the seedlings persevered and made it to the outplanting event.

Skills and knowledge for the next generation

A total of 69 native plants were outplanted by the students, including a mix of wiliwili, naio (Myoporum sandwicense, false sandalwood) and mao (Gossypium tomentosum, Hawaiian cotton). The months-long project and final event have filled the fourth-grade students like Alexis Ariaga with a sense of accomplishment.

“After planting our trees, I feel great because I’m helping the community,” said Alexis. “I do feel like I’m making a difference to Lanai because we’re helping by planting trees. We’re also helping by picking up fishing lines and all kinds of trash. If climate change (goes on) any longer, our planet and home can die, so please help stop climate change.”

“I really do think we are making a different here where we live,” said Gianna Reilly, another student in Danyel’s fourth-grade class. “Here on Lanai, we don’t have as many trees growing, but now that we are planting lots of other trees, birds and other animals will have more food and homes to live in.  When I heard that we planted 63 or 69 trees my brain filled with joy. That’s when I knew that Lanai would have a strong, happy and healthy future.”

According to Kari and Danyel, they are already brainstorming for next year’s Earth Day outplanting event. For the past several months, Kari has also partnered with the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center in preparation for the upcoming Kupulau Festival on April 30th where they will be giving away native plants they have been cultivating.

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