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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 22, 2001

There's life yet in the old banyan tree

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui Bureau

LAHAINA, Maui — For as long as anyone can remember, Lahaina's banyan tree has been the center of activity in this historic town. May Day celebrations, dances, political rallies and scores of other functions have been held under the shade of the massive canopy.

A birthday bash was staged under Lahaina's banyan, where people have gathered for the better part of 128 years.

Timothy Hurley • The Honolulu Advertiser

When George "Keoki'' Freeland was a kid in the 1950s, he and his friends played tag in the tree.

"If you touched the ground, you were out,'' recalled Freeland, who grew up across the street from the enormous tree. "So we figured out ways to swing from one branch to the other.''

Lahaina celebrated the 128th birthday of its famous banyan tree with a party yesterday and today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The party featured a birthday cake, a display of works by local artists, hands-on activities for children and historical exhibits.

Partygoers reveled under the branches of a tree that has seen many things. It is said that the royal ball of 1886 for King Kamehameha III's birthday was celebrated under the growing crown.

Over the years the tree has offered a cool place in the merciless Lahaina sun for plantation workers and pineapple employees to meet and conduct business. It has been the locale of many a political rally, lu'au, concert and fund-raiser. For years, it shaded elementary school festivities, whaling sprees and Aloha Week observances.

Today, artists and craftsmen sell their works under the tree each weekend, and many cultural festivals are staged there throughout the year.

And each evening the banyan comes alive with the song of thousands of roosting myna birds.

"It's always been a wonderful gathering place, the center of town,'' said Theo Morrison, executive director of the Lahaina Town Action Committee, sponsor of the birthday celebration.

The largest banyan tree in Hawai'i and probably in the United States, it shades more than two-thirds of an acre, measures nearly one-fourth of a mile in circumference and stands close to 60 feet. It is popularly believed that a thousand people can stand under its canopy.

"Tourists are amazed. They are in awe,'' Morrison said. "At night you see them walking around gaping at the tree. It's a natural wonder, a living sculpture.''

Susan Smith of Thousand Oaks, Calif., agreed as she gazed at the tangle of branches from a nearby bench.

"Incredible,'' she said. "It's as big as a city block.''

William Owen Smith, the sheriff of old Lahaina town, planted the tree next to the Lahaina Courthouse on April 24, 1873, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Protestant missionaries arriving in Lahaina. It was a mere 8 feet tall, and the flag of the Kingdom of Hawai'i was flying nearby.

The banyan, or Ficus benghalensis, from India, is unlike any other tree. At first it grows normally, but then roots begin to sprout down from the branches. When these aerial roots reach the ground they grow into new trunks, so that the original trunk is surrounded by many other trunks.

Given enough time, one tree can turn into a forest. One ancient tree in Calcutta has an original trunk 12 feet thick and is surrounded by 200 additional trunks. One legend says that when Alexander the Great invaded India, his entire army of 7,000 camped under one banyan.

Through the years, gardeners from the Japanese community hung large pickle jars filled with water beneath selected aerial roots of the Lahaina tree to help create new trunks. Other roots were trimmed. The banyan now has 16 major trunks and many more smaller ones.

But the tree's popularity has taken a toll. The soil around the base has become compacted by scores of visitors and by automobiles driven under the tree to set up for events. What's worse, drought conditions and the loss of irrigation caused by a recent renovation of the Lahaina Courthouse has exacerbated the situation.

Last year, the tree was showing signs of distress and the county imposed a number of restrictions to help out. The prohibitions include no vehicle traffic underneath the crown, no cooking under the tree, no nailing of signs and no climbing.

The Lahaina Restoration Foundation recently spent $12,000 to reinstall an irrigation system in the park, and the banyan appears to have rebounded with new growth.

Still, county Arborist David Sakota said he is concerned because of the ongoing drought on Maui. He said his office will continue to monitor the tree and, if its health declines again, will consider removing the gravel under the tree and bringing in new soil and ground cover.

Correction: The dates for Lahaina's banyan tree birthday party was Saturday and Sunday, April 21 and 22. Because of an editing error, the wrong dates were given in a previous version of this story.