Note: This is a botanical article. Our purpose is not to judge the relative value of the Lahaina Banyan Tree compared to other damages and losses in Lahaina. Our purpose is to report on the efforts to save trees after a devastating fire. We leave the judgment of their relative value to those with more historical and political expertise.
There are no words to express the immense devastation that recently occurred on the island of Maui, Hawaii. In August 2023, catastrophic wildfires fueled by hurricane-force winds and a high-pressure system ripped through the towns of Olinda, Kula, Pulehu and Lahaina. These wildfires and strong winds destroyed homes, gardens, crops, businesses, infrastructure, communities and historical sites, impacting thousands of individuals if not the entire island.
Thousands of people have lost their homes and everything they own. The ultimate tragedy is the heartbreaking loss of lives in Lahaina. Even the loss of a town is nothing compared to the loss of human life. We, as residents of Hawaii, are all irrevocably changed.
Despite this horrific disaster, the community is resilient and determined to revive the rich culture and history of Maui, including the iconic and Exceptional Trees of Maui County. These include the Indian banyan (Ficus benghalensis) in Lahaina Courthouse Square, the ulu (Atrocarpus altilis) or breadfruit tree outside the Baldwin House Museum and other culturally significant trees that were damaged in Lahaina.
Although the Lahaina Banyan Tree and the Baldwin ulu (‘ulu, in the Hawaiian language) were damaged by the fires, a team of arborists and community members is working to recover them. Steve Nimz, consulting arborist for Tree Solutions Hawaii and a former 41-year TCIA member living and working in Maui, is the lead arborist for the recovery of Lahaina’s trees. He has established a team of experts from near and far to consult on the treatment plan.
On the ground, local companies and organizations are volunteering substantial time and resources to preserving the Lahaina Banyan, Baldwin ulu and other trees that may have survived the fire. These organizations include Prometheus Construction, Goodfellow Bros., Lahaina Restoration Foundation, Island Plant Company, Naholowaa Earth Works and Chris Imonti. Time will tell if these trees will recover, but people and organizations worldwide have offered their products and services to help.
Lahaina ulu trees
Several trees in the vicinity are on an Exceptional Trees of Maui County listing and are treasured within the community. Jesse Neizman and Kalapana Kollars of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation shared a wealth of knowledge about Lahaina Town and its history with trees.
Before the famed Lahaina Banyan existed, Lahaina was a lush wetland area, and was renowned for ulu (breadfruit) trees. An Olelo Noeau (Hawaiian proverb) affirms, “Lahaina i ka malu ulu o Lele” – “Lahaina lies in the shade of the breadfruit trees of Lele” (the old name for Lahaina). Kollars describes how vast groves of ulu once grew in the area, and people could walk across town and be constantly shaded by the ulu trees. The trees not only cooled the climate but also fed the thriving community.
The Exceptional Trees of Maui County listing, “M-9, Breadfruit (ulu) Artocarpus altilis, a tree planted by Rev. Dwight D. Baldwin in the early 1800s,” does not thoroughly capture the significance of this tree’s legacy and its importance to the Lahaina community. Kollars and Neizman suggest this tree may truly be named “Puloa” and be an offspring of the ancient grove of Lele. The tree was planted as part of a lush garden behind the historic Baldwin Home, which is now the oldest house standing on Maui.
The tree’s more recent decades were lived squeezed between the Baldwin Home Museum’s parking lot and Luakini Street in a small planter space. While the tree’s trunk and canopy did not survive the recent fire, ulu are persistent. Quite possibly, the asphalt could have saved the tree’s root structure from fire damage, meaning suckers may still develop from the ancient tree’s roots.
Arborist community aids many trees
Even though the Lahaina Banyan gets the media spotlight, a team of arborists and community members are dedicated to reviving other trees across Lahaina, including Puloa’s offspring. On August 23, 2023, Prometheus Construction removed the asphalt around the trunk, and Naholowaa Earth Works and Chris Imonti added compost tea to the soil to provide beneficial microorganisms to the Baldwin ulu.
Goodfellow Bros. has added this ulu to their map of additional trees with which to provide supplemental water around Lahaina Town. The stage has been set. Now the water and microorganisms will get to work on reviving the root structure.
The kupuna ulu tree still stands with dignity, even though the trunk is charred. The Lahaina Restoration Foundation will facilitate saving the pieces from the trunk and placing them into the hands of trusted woodworkers. These makers can create beautiful art that will honor the legacy of Lahaina’s ulu groves and Puloa.
While rebuilding Lahaina will take many years, beginning planting efforts now will improve soil health and air quality, and restore life to a charred landscape. Returning trees and wetlands to Lahaina will contribute to buffering the community against a warming climate. Let’s envision Lahaina beneath the shade of ulu trees once again.
The Lahaina Banyan has been growing at the Lahaina Courthouse Square for 150 years and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On April 24, 1873, Sheriff William O. Smith, born in Hawaii and descended from an American missionary family, planted the tree to honor the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina.
Smith was the attorney general representing Maui to the legislature of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and participated in the overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893. This connection between the tree and the man who planted it has not been forgotten by the lineal descendants of Lahaina or by other Native Hawaiians.
Over the many decades, the Lahaina Banyan has spread over an acre of land, with graceful branches emanating from a single trunk. The tree’s form is a collaboration between nature and the residents of Lahaina, who have lovingly cared for and shaped the tree. The tree’s size, aesthetics and historical value earned it a coveted spot on the list of Exceptional Trees of Maui County and a special honor from the National Arborist Association, now the Tree Care Industry Association, in 1982. The latter recognition is commemorated by a plaque that stands at the base of the tree, and which survived the fire.
While the connection to Smith will always remain, the tree arguably has transformed beyond the intention of the person who planted it and has become a gathering space for the community. People throughout Hawaii and beyond our shores have memories of their experience being in the presence of the awe-inspiring Lahaina Banyan. The tree is now a symbol of Lahaina and has fostered worldwide connections to this special location.
Many people wondered what the fate of the iconic banyan would be following the fire. Local contracting company Prometheus Construction facilitated a rapid tree assessment by Steve Nimz three days after the fire. Before work began on the tree assessment and recovery, Kumu Kapono Kamaunu, who grew up in Lahaina, blessed the site and the tree. (“Kumu” is a Hawaiian term for “teacher,” or a person who possesses Hawaiian cultural knowledge that they share with the community.)
Nimz inspected the canopy with an aerial lift and found the leaves and fruit were brown, shriveled and desiccated, and the upper branch tips were dead. Nimz also inspected all of the trunk and aerial roots and found the two aerial roots and branches on the corner of Front Street and the Pioneer Inn were significantly damaged. The remaining aerial roots were not charred and had live cambium tissue with minimal sap flow.
Most of the wooden benches beneath the tree’s canopy survived the fire, suggesting it did not burn as hot under the tree. In a news interview, Nimz shared that “the live tissue in the banyan indicates the tree has the potential to survive, though the tree will require additional and consistent care for many months, especially during the hot and dry summer and early fall.”
With the hope of the tree’s survival, a recovery plan was developed in consultation with expert arborists in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and beyond.
Making a plan
Nimz and a dedicated team are currently implementing a tree care plan that addresses the tree from its roots to its shoots. Goodfellow Bros. provides water trucks to water the tree’s many branches and roots daily. Water quality is being tested, and soil moisture is monitored daily. Island Plant Company is developing plans for a potential irrigation system.
Peter Bunn is an independent consultant specializing in soil and plant nutrition with Crop Nutrients Solutions Inc., located on the island of Oahu. He is analyzing the soil and comparing it to his recorded soil samples from 20 years ago. The Prometheus Construction crew used air-excavation tools to reduce the soil compaction beneath the canopy and improve the drainage. Chris Imonti brewed 600 gallons of compost tea and, with the help of Naholowaa Earth Works, dispersed the tea across the soil to reintroduce beneficial microorganisms and provide nutrients. Mulch and compost will be forthcoming.
Changes in the tree’s trunk, canopy and roots will be monitored by a team of qualified arborists. ePlant of Los Altos, California, maker of the ePlant TreeTag system, has donated 20 sensors to place throughout the tree to measure changes in the tree’s cambium. As conditions change, the plan will be adapted to meet the needs of what the tree requires for recovery.
Exciting new developments are already happening. Just three weeks after the fire, Allison Wright of Island Plant Company reported new root growth and mycorrhizal activity. On August 31, 2023, Steve Nimz and the team reported new leaves sprouting out of the banyan trunk.
Lahaina Restoration Foundation
Rest assured, with the help of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, the tree recovery team is dedicating the same level of care to multiple trees in Lahaina, including the exceptional banyan, ulu and other historic and culturally significant trees that have the potential to survive. As Steve Nimz says, “The tree is going to tell us what it needs. We are going to be listening to the tree.”
Ilana Nimz is an ASCA Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA) and a wildlife biologist for Tree Solutions Hawaii, a family-owned and -operated company based in Oahu, Hawaii. She is Steve Nimz’ daughter.
Hannah Lutgen is a Maui County Landscape and Floriculture Extension faculty member for the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
Steve Nimz is chief consulting arborist for Tree Solutions Hawaii, a former 41-year TCIA member company. He has more than 55 years of experience with tropical trees, and has received numerous awards of recognition from the ISA and Western Chapter ISA.