The Lahaina Banyan Tree
In early August 2023, a calamitous series of wildfires erupted across the Hawaiian islands. A cauldron of atmospheric conditions turned the islands into something akin to a bed of kindling.
The U.S. Drought Monitor showed a majority of the islands to be abnormally dry, with several areas drifting into legitimate drought. Meteorologists believe a high-pressure system north of the chain and a Category 4 hurricane to the south amplified the famous Hawaiian trade winds. With a spark, this combination could become a catastrophic wildfire engine. The sources of the brush fires that eventually ignited are still not definitively known, but some officials speculate that downed electricity lines might be the culprit. Whatever the cause, when the flames began, nothing short of miraculous rainfall would have stopped the conflagration. The wind gradient transported the wildfires with incredible speed.
The scale of the disaster that struck the town of Lahaina on Maui is hard to comprehend. The imagery from space and photography from after the fire are stunning. The speed with which the fire overtook the town intensified its effect, leaving people in some instances with time only to flee to the ocean. According to data at the time of publication, at least 115 people perished in Lahaina, but that total could increase significantly. Nearly 400 others remain missing, as officials scour buildings for remains. Currently, the Lahaina fire is the fifth deadliest in US history and the worst since 1918.
In the weeks that followed, survivors grappled with reality. Even in the darkest tragedies, humans have a tendency to search for signs of hope, perhaps an evolutionary survival adaptation.
Some residents began to focus on one such symbol in Lahaina.
In the charred remnants of the town, a familiar figure seemed to remain standing.
The dark area in the photo above shows Lahaina’s oldest living inhabitant, a specimen of Ficus benghalensis.
This tree is a banyan, a member of the fig family. This particular individual happens to be the largest banyan tree in the United States.
In April 2023, the town celebrated the 150th birthday party of this incredible tree. It had been planted in 1873 to mark the 50th anniversary of a Protestant mission invited to the island by Queen Keōpūolani. Missionaries from India, the native land of the banyan, brought it as a gift.
At the time it was seeded, the tree stood eight feet high. By its sesquicentennial, the tree had grown to 60 feet! Banyans expand in a curious fashion. The crown of the Lahaina banyan covers two-thirds of an acre. This measurement would be highly unlikely for a single-rooted tree of 60 feet in height. Banyans produce aerial roots, where roots exist above ground. Instead of developing from the ground, however, the banyan’s aerial roots grow downward from their branches! When the roots finally hit the ground, they develop into another trunk. Currently, the Lahaina banyan touts 16 trunks.
Looking at the tree from ground level, one might believe one looked at a grove of distinct individuals, but the organism is a single tree.
This majestic tree has centered Lahaina for a century and a half, hosting royal balls, festivals, and art exhibitions under its leaves. It served as a friendly spot for thousands upon thousands of mynahs over the years.
The fire in Lahaina did not discriminate, coming for nearly every edifice and inch of land. Many feared the banyan’s 150-year run must have ended in 2023, but video and imagery seemed to show the tree somehow standing when the flames abated. How could it survive? Some types of trees have evolved to deal with fire better than others. Sequoias, for example, not only weather fire relatively well thanks to their thick bark but also require it for their cones to open. In some ways, older, larger trees have a better chance of survival. Perhaps the Lahaina banyan’s size allowed it to resist the flames.
Surrounded by death, the tree somehow stood. It was the metaphor the community needed.
However, as the days passed, doubts about the tree began to rise. The skeletons of trees can notoriously persist for hundreds or thousands of years. Some imagery did not display the banyan faring well.
The video above shows the tree still erect, but smoldering from the ground. Was it still alive?
An arborist named Steve Nimz inspected the banyan, checking for signs of life. He discovered significant damage to the tree but detected live tissue in the main trunks. This finding lends serious credence to the possible regeneration of the tree.
Nimz said, “Normally if you touch or cut into a banyan tree, you’re just going to see that sap oozing out really fast. There was sap where I cut in on the top and all these areas, but it wasn’t proliferous like it would be on a really healthy tree. But it’s there. What I am saying is that these trees are resilient. With everybody’s love and everybody here, we want to see the tree make it. It’s up to the tree right now.”
Some scientists have described the tree as being in a “coma.” Nimz believes we’ll know if the banyan will survive within three to six months.
The Lahaina banyan receives steady doses of tree medication: water and healthy, non-burned soil.
The fate of this famous tree is not assured, but, as is needed in all disasters, hope persists. May this grand old tree live another 150 years!
Further Reading and Exploration
THE LAHAINA BANYAN TREE: HOW IT CAME TO BE – Lahaina Restoration Foundation
Lahaina Banyan Tree Informational Plaque – Lahaina Historic Trail
Esteemed arborist Steve Nimz gives update on Lahaina’s Banyan tree – KITV
On the ground in Lahaina town: Sadness, searching, signs of hope – The Maui News
Efforts underway to revive 150-year-old banyan tree in Lahaina – Honolulu Star-Advertiser