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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 22, 2005

Tree planted in 1870s cut down

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Mark Leon of Sunshine Landscape Co. cut away at the termite-infested stump of a 55-foot banyan tree that was leveled last week in the parking lot at Nu'uanu Shopping Plaza. The tree was planted by Chinese businessman Chun Afong more than a century ago.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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One of the oldest banyan trees in the state has been cut down because it was termite-ridden and rotting away.

The 55-foot-tall banyan at the Nu'uanu Shopping Plaza was cut down Dec. 11, and all that remains is a 6-foot stump that is being removed by workers from Sunshine Landscape Co.

The tree, along with a companion banyan on the same property at the corner of Nu'uanu Avenue and School Street, was planted by Chinese businessman Chun Afong in the 1870s. They were the first banyans planted in Hawaiian soil.

Jessica Mau, a cashier at the Hungry Lion restaurant, which is built around the second banyan tree, said seeing the giant banyan removed was a sorry sight.

"I thought it was sad because it has been here for so long," Mau said. "It's a piece of history."

Afong, who brought the banyans from China in tiny pots, built a mansion on the property overlooking Chinatown and Honolulu Harbor. He also planted O'ahu's first lychee tree, which still stands in the parking lot today.

In 1920, the property was sold to grocer Chun-Hoon who turned it into a commercial center, including the Chun Hoon Market, which closed in 1983.

Today the property has several small shops and restaurants and is owned by William Weinberg, former owner of what is now the Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Mark Leon, president of Sunshine Landscape, works a couple of hours every morning cutting away chunks of the huge stump. With concrete, bottles and cans embedded into the crevasses of the tree, he said for every five minutes he cuts, he sharpens his chainsaw for 15 minutes.

Abner Undan, an arborist and president of Trees of Hawai'i, performed an assessment of the banyan trees.

Undan said the larger tree had been overpruned with five or six large limbs removed all the way around the tree.

"The only thing that remained was two vertical limbs," Undan said. "About 75 percent of the tree had already been removed and the trunk started to decay. It was improperly pruned in the past, and so this tree paid the price."

Leon said, "I see trees that have been overpruned all the time. It makes me nauseous. If the public can take anything away from this, it is don't overprune your trees. Don't top the tree, it will kill them. It's better to leave a tree alone than prune it wrong."

Undan also is worried about the second banyan and the lychee tree. The roots of both trees cannot expand and grow because they are covered by concrete and asphalt.

"The (shopping center) encroaches on the trees too much," he said. "The intent was really good. They tried to save these trees. Temporarily you can do that because trees are tough, but if you don't give the trees the opportunity to defend themselves they will succumb to failure, natural defects and health problems."

Steve Sofos, whose commercial real-estate firm Sofos Realty Corp. manages the property, said he didn't know the tree was historic, but did know it was filled with termites.

"That thing was so full of termites it was going to fall on one of the buildings and hurt someone," Sofos said.

Mary Steiner, chief executive officer of The Outdoor Circle, a statewide environmental organization and advocate for Hawai'i's trees, said the group was consulted before the tree was cut down. Because of the tree's poor condition, the group did not object to the removal as long as it will be replaced by another tree.

"It may have been historic and important, but not exceptional," Steiner said.

"Exceptional trees" are protected by law to safeguard them from injury or destruction. Trees can be designated for their age, rarity, location, size, aesthetic quality, endemic status or historical and cultural significance. Nearby Foster Botanical Garden has 25 of the more than 100 trees designated exceptional on O'ahu.

So the old banyan may not have been "exceptional," but that didn't mean it wasn't special to a lot of people.

Benjamin Goo, whose grandmother lived in Nu'uanu in the 1930s, stood and looked at the stump this week.

"We played in this area when I was a kid," he said. "We used to walk around here, sell newspapers, shine shoes."

Goo looked at the stump, shook his head and said: "That's what they call progress."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com.