Lahaina’s Historic Banyan Tree Is Scarred, but Standing

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In the midst of the devastating fires that wreaked havoc on the historic town of Lahaina on the west coast of Maui, there is a glimmer of hope in the form of a 150-year-old banyan tree. This cherished landmark has withstood the destruction, although it bears the scars of the flames, leaving its future uncertain.

Lahaina was once the royal capital of Hawaii, and the banyan tree on Front Street is just one of the town’s many historical marvels. Planted in 1873 to commemorate a Protestant mission that took place fifty years prior, the tree stood at a mere eight feet tall. However, the consistent care and attention from the residents of Lahaina allowed it to flourish, growing to a towering height of over 60 feet.

County officials have provided an update on the condition of the tree, stating that if its roots remain healthy, there is a chance it will regenerate. Unfortunately, recent images suggest that the tree has suffered significant burns, casting doubt on its survival. Requests for further information from county and tourism officials have remained unanswered.

James B. Friday, an extension forester from the University of Hawaii, expressed his pessimism regarding the tree’s chances of recovery. Upon examining photos and videos of the banyan, he concluded that the thin layer of bark would likely not have been able to withstand the intense fires. Dr. Friday remarked that it doesn’t appear that the tree will recover.

Banyan trees, native to the Indian subcontinent, can grow to resemble small forests with their massive size. These trees have aerial roots that develop in the branches and extend towards the ground, forming new trunks as their canopies expand. In Lahaina, residents have nurtured the growth of the banyan tree by hanging jars of water to guide the most promising aerial roots towards the earth.

Covering over half an acre, the leafy canopy of the banyan tree has become a natural gathering spot for craft fairs and community events, offering a cool refuge under its sweeping branches. Theo Morrison, the executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, expressed some optimism about the tree’s future, stating that banyan trees are notoriously difficult to kill. However, she also reported that the roof of the adjacent old courthouse had been destroyed, along with the heritage museum housed within it.

While trees can recover by sprouting from the remnants of their roots, Dr. Friday noted that this process is more likely to occur within a forest setting. In an urban environment, it would be simpler to replace the charred stumps with new saplings rather than attempt to revive them.

As the town of Lahaina begins to assess the extent of the damage caused by the fires, the fate of the beloved banyan tree remains uncertain. Its potential loss would be a devastating blow, not only to the historical significance of the town but also to the community that has cherished and celebrated it throughout the years.

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