Amid Maui wildfire ash, Lahaina’s 150-year-old banyan tree offers hope as it remains standing

Amid Maui wildfire ash, Lahaina’s 150-year-old banyan tree offers hope as it remains standing

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In the middle of Lahaina’s ash and rubble is a sign of hope for people in Maui: a famed, 150-year-old banyan tree that’s heavily charred — but still standing. 

The tree is a sight to behold, still sprawling over downtown Lahaina’s courthouse square after a devastating blaze raged through the town just days ago, destroying thousands of structures and forcing residents to flee. 

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green told CBS News the tree is “still breathing” and is absorbing water and producing sap, just not as much as it usually does. 

“It’s like a burn victim itself,” Green said. “Traumatized, much like the town.” 

Wildfires driven by high winds hit Hawaiian island of Maui
The 150-year-old banyan tree is seen in Lahaina after wildfires driven by high winds burned across most of the town several days ago, in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii on August 10, 2023.

MARCO GARCIA / REUTERS


The Lahaina banyan tree was planted on April 24, 1873, when it was just 8 feet tall, as a gift from missionaries from India. Since then, it’s grown to be “extraordinary, almost surreal,” standing over 60 feet tall with a quarter-mile circumference, according to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. It also has 46 “major trunks” aside from the original it was planted with, and is known for being “the largest banyan tree in the entire United States,” according to the organization. 

banyan-tree-1908.jpg
The Lahaina banyan tree in 1908. 

Lahaina Restoration Foundation


On Saturday, Hawaiian Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono visited the tree, saying an arborists on the scene was doing “everything he can” to help save the famous banyan. With dozens of people dead from the fire that tore through the area, Hirono said she believes the tree is offering some optimism among despair.

“The iconic banyan tree on Front Street is deeply damaged, but still standing,” she posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “After speaking with the arborist working on the tree, I’m optimistic that it will bloom again — serving as a symbol of hope amid so much devastation.”

It already has served as a sign of hope. 

Local business owner Javier Barberi went back to Lahaina – the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – the day after the fire ripped through the area. The only way he was able to find his business in the city’s remains was by looking for the tree. 

“I drove to Front Street. I was only able to find our restaurant based off of the banyan tree. I had to use the banyan tree as a reference because everything was decimated as far as the eye could see,” he said. 

“The banyan tree is one of the most iconic things in Lahaina. It’s a landmark,” he said. “To me, it shows strength of the town, you know this incredible, resilient tree. And I hope to God we see green come out of it one day.” 

On Sunday, a local arborist told Gov. Green that the tree will attempt to “generate new growth and buds on branches.” That, he said, can happen even if there are dead branches on the tree. 

It remains unclear what sparked the first flame that grew into the disastrous fire. But a series of environmental factors, exacerbated by climate change, played a large role. A hurricane that was passing the islands hundreds of miles away sent “unusually strong trade winds” to Mau, helping fuel the fire, as much of the island experienced drought.

As global temperatures increase, the likelihood of more intense hurricanes and drought also increases, creating an even bigger risk for more events like what Maui just experienced in the future. 

“These kinds of climate change-related disasters are really beyond the scope of things that we’re used to dealing with,” Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, said. “It’s these kind of multiple, interactive challenges that really lead to a disaster.”

“The most destructive fires usually occur during drought. If an area falls into drought quickly, that means there is a longer window of time for fires to occur,” said Jason Otkin, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The risk for destructive fires could increase in the future if flash droughts become more common, as some studies have indicated.” 



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