The Banyan Tree

Anyone who has ever been to Maui has been to Lahaina… and anyone who has ever been to Lahaina has indeed passed by what is unquestionably one of the most remarkable and impressive trees, they will ever see.  It is the Banyan tree of Lahaina.

Located in the heart of Lahaina directly in front of the Old Lahaina Courthouse, this epic tree has earned the title of the biggest Banyan tree in all of Hawaii. Its branches spread out over more than two-thirds of an acre. It’s circumference measures more than one-fourth of a mile, and its branches soar upwards to a height of 60 feet. If you have ever seen a sight before where all you can say is “Wow!” The Banyan tree is just such an experience.

The tree was planted back in April of 1873 by William Owen Smith, the Sheriff of Lahaina. At the time Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It was given as a gift from missionaries in India to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first American Protestant mission.

The First Presbyterian Mission was founded at the request of Queen Keopuolani (Key-oh Poo-oh lan-ee), the Queen Mother and sacred widow of King Kamehameha (Kah-may-ah may-ah) the Great

The tree at the time it was planted was a mere 8 foot tall. Today, it is not only the biggest Banyan tree in Hawaii but in the entire United States, as well as being the oldest.

Characteristic of the Ficus benghalensis, better known in Hawaiian as paniana (pan-ee an-ah), are the aerial roots. These roots descend or sprout from the branches downwards towards the ground where they form new trunks. This results in the growth of many trunks around the main trunk. The Banyan Tree in what has now become known as Banyan Tree Park has 16 major trunks, apart from the main trunk.

Those whose see the Banyan  tree cannot help but notice its uniformity which is not a product of chance. Over the past twelve decades, it has been groomed and pampered by a host of Japanese gardeners. Initially, these caretakers hung large pickle jars below the aerial roots whose locations promoted the greatest strength and symmetry. They then identified and removed other aerial roots whose positioning detracted from the overall conformity of this amazing tree.

It is hard to believe this giant began life as an “epiphyte” which is an organism that grows on the surface of a plant.  Epiphytes get their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and water in whatever debris is around them.

Sadly, the Lahaina Banyan tree has fallen victim to the whims and maliciousness of thoughtless individuals carving their initial through the outer layers of the bark. Even today despite the fact that signs are posted everywhere warning to not climb on the tree, children and even adults cannot resist the urge.  However, there is a hefty penalty for doing so.

The park occupies the site of the Old Lahaina Fort, originally built in 1831. Hoapili (Hoe ah-pee-lee) who was the Royal Governor of Maui, built the fort to protect the town from riotous sailors when Lahaina was used as an anchorage for the North Pacific whaling fleet. After the fort had been demolished in 1854, a courthouse was built on the site. And in 1964, a portion of the old Lahaina Fort was reconstructed.

Every Saturday and Sunday, you can find an Arts & Crafts Show under the Banyan Tree sponsored by the Lahaina Arts Association. There art by local artisans is available for purchase and viewing. The park and courthouse are presently managed by the County of Maui and the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.

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