Images by Tom Anderson

As trees go in Hawai‘i, the mighty koa and the metaphysical ‘ōhi‘a lehua remain lauded in hula and legend, their grandeur the province of gods of creation and destruction; these are the trees that adaptively radiated to Hawai‘i and defined landscape and life. But it is the introduced Ficus benghalensis, the Indian Banyan, (paniania in Hawaiian, a transliteration of the English word) that has become the tree of the people, both the subject and host of prose and poetry for nearly two centuries. Suspending aerial roots like pale limbs under thick boughs, tangling into themselves, the trees have witnessed all aspects of living in the sea-locked center of the Pacific. 

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Princess Boughs

The scientific process of counting tree rings (dendrochronology, they call it) is impossible on a banyan; the tropical tree lacks alternating seasonal layers. It is also unnecessary, as most, if not all, banyans in Hawai‘i come from a single source: the tree that once stood at a home called ‘Āinahau in Waikīkī. That tree was planted in 1875 by businessman Archibald Scott Cleghorn and his wife Princess Miriam Kapili Likelike for their daughter Ka‘iulani on land given to the newborn by her godmother Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani in honor of her birth. Under the shade of the banyan, which flourished in the former wetland, the royals entertained all manner of guests in both Western and Hawaiian receptions. At Ka‘iulani’s eighth birthday celebration in 1883, an article from the Saturday Press read: “There was a dancing room fitted up, for the little ones, and all the band boys were under the great banyan to pipe for them to dance.” By Ka‘iulani’s eleventh birthday, the banyan was big enough to serve as the setting for the Royal Hawaiian Band.

‘Āinahau is now the site of the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel. The Cleghorn home no longer stands, “the victim of the transformation of Waikīkī from the playground of royalty to a place of package tours,” wrote Ralph Thomas Kam, a University of Hawai‘i American studies professor, in the Hawaii Journal of History in 2011. “But one storied piece of its history continues to literally spread its roots through time in the form of the ‘Āinahau banyan. … Hundreds of individuals have rallied to help preserve the ‘Āinahau banyan and its numerous descendants.”

Assuming Mr. Cleghorn was an intelligent man, I wondered why he chose to plant a giant shade tree that could foreseeably uproot his daughter’s home. That era in Hawai‘i was marked by immense change, as ports across the archipelago in Lahaina, Honolulu, and Kailua-Kona were becoming urbanized due to an influx of American missionaries and whalers—utilizing historical imagination, I realize what’s not mentioned in the books: These places get damn hot. Like, everything-is-irritating-me-right-now hot. Before electric air conditioning, the pall of heat when the trade winds pause was a great equalizer in the Pacific. No one, not even a princess, was too bourgeois to stay cooped up indoors. Royalty and the rich sons of missionaries had their summer estates in the cool microclimates of Nu‘uanu Valley on O‘ahu or Hulihe‘e in Kailua-Kona on Hawai‘i Island, but for everybody else, the only rational thing to do with free time was to follow instincts and chill out under a tree by the tepid waters, and the bigger the better.

Prior to Ka‘iulani’s departure for England in 1889, frequent houseguest, author, and poet Robert Louis Stevenson penned a remembrance for both the tree and the princess:

Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.

Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.

But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani’s eye.

When Ka‘iulani returned, ‘Āinahau remained the site of numerous receptions. But less than six months later, the “banyan that had long served as a place of mirth and dancing would transform to one of mourning and dirge with the death of Princess Ka‘iulani,” writes Kam. “Traditional ritual replaced the Western receptions.”

An article from 1899 in the Hawaiian Gazette captured the scene when thousands of mourners showed up to view Ka‘iulani’s remains: “Mingling with the wailing of the old natives and the chanting of the meles floated up the mournful dirges of the band. Seated in front of the home, under the branches of the spreading banyan, the members of the band poured out their melody.”

Decades later, a fire razed ‘Āinahau and scourged the tree on its expansive lawn. Until the 1940s, the tree was called the Stevenson banyan, as his poem to Ka‘iulani was inscribed on a plaque at its base. Eventually the street fronting ‘Āinahau was named Tusitala (“storyteller,” in Samoan), the name given to Stevenson by his friends. After its care by the Daughters of Hawai‘i and the Outdoor Circle, the tree was felled in 1949. What remain of the ‘Āinahau banyan are the numerous trees that were planted with its cuttings at Kapi‘olani Park, the Honolulu Zoo, Ka‘iulani Elementary School (where the ‘Āinahau plaque now rests), and Kūhiō Beach.

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The Exceptional Walking Tree

“Trees are the last thing you notice, until they’re gone,” said Stan Oka, the urban forest administrator of City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “We do things a lay person wouldn’t notice, but we tend to get push-back from both ends, people telling us to keep a tree or take it out. There are steps that we take before deciding to remove one. We consider safety first, then defects and aesthetics,” he said speaking at the department’s headquarters across the street from Kapi‘olani Park. “We get a lot of vandalism: poisoning, staking, cutting trees, but people don’t mess with the banyan. Everyone has been really respectful of those trees.” As we talk, I notice a wall stacked from floor to ceiling with awards and certifications for Honolulu’s rigorously trained arborists and tree trimmers. Say what you will about City and County politics, with five arboretums on the island and the most educated arborists in the country, Honolulu has impressively maintained flora. “We haven’t had an incident where someone’s been injured from a city tree in years,” said Stan proudly.

“The city has several tree farms, and occasionally plants types that provide the high-top canopy that Ficus benghalensis offers,” Clark Leavitt, a highly decorated arborist with the City and County of Honolulu, explained to me. “We plant narra, monkeypod, and occasionally banyan. The thing with banyan is that it’s going to spread, and not too many places can accommodate that anymore.” When asked about the banyan’s propensity as an arboreal jungle gym, he’s pragmatic. “Chicken wire prevents the kids from swinging on the roots. When they do that, the bough gets lower and tougher, and then people will want to climb it. Safety is our first priority. We have to review sites and do routine work, all on a budget. We’ve spent the last decade working on transitioning from managing to maintenance, to be more efficient. We do most of our work in-house, but for some projects, we need licensed outside contractors.”

Mafatu Krainer, a second-generation tree specialist, is one of those contractors, and got the nod to work on the exceptional banyan at Kūhiō Beach Park that fronts Queen’s surf, the boughs of which nearly touch the iconic statue of Duke Kahanamoku. His father, “Chief Miko” Krainer, was famous for ascending coconut trees in nothing but a malo and tattoos before Mafatu took over the family business. “So much of what we hear about is from the Outdoor Circle and folks that come up to me and say whether or not I’m doing my job right,” Mafatu says. “It’s not as if we can just hand somebody a chainsaw and tell them to go at it. This is dangerous work, and we go through a lot to get certified. That tree was tough because of its location and its exceptional status,” Mafatu says. He refers to the city’s ability to deem a tree “exceptional,” affording it unique rights and privileges; a separate process must be undertaken to even trim it.

No other tree is given more privileges than the banyan at ‘Iolani Palace. The tree on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace is most likely descended from the tree at ‘Āinahau, though this can only be inferred. Many believe Queen Kapi‘olani planted it, her sister-in-law being Likelike, whose husband planted the ‘Āinahau banyan. Years after the overthrow, Queen Lili‘uokalani still held court under its canopy. “In the happy old palace days her favorite pastime was to sit under the shade of the great banyan tree, in the back of the palace yard, with her ladies in waiting, lounging lazily on the grass around her, and tease them about their sweethearts,” wrote the Austin’s Hawaiian Weekly in 1899. “If you look for the trunk of that tree, you won’t find it,” said Leavitt of the original trunk that has since died. But the banyan lives on, its aerial roots having slowly made their way to the earth, forming new tree trunks for the organism, which they continue to do. “It’s been walking towards the legislature for decades now, setting down new roots in that direction,” continued Leavitt.

The ability to “walk,” this process of regeneration, and the tree’s capacity to send tendrils to the earth from its exposed branches in forms that resemble pale limbs, have inspired numerous cultures to ascribe a sentience to the banyan and incorporate their forms into the planning of community. There are other famous banyans in Hawai‘i besides the Honolulu ones: the largest thrives in front of the Lahaina courthouse on Maui, planted in 1873 by contentious lawyer, trustee, and member of the Committee of Safety who dethroned the Hawaiian kingdom, William Owen Smith. Several thrive throughout Kaua‘i, there’s an exceptional one on Moloka‘i, and countless others flourish in both resorts and jungle across the archipelago. The banyan on the beach in Kailua-Kona may be gone, but its memory isn’t. Residents still refer to the best surfing break on the coast as “Banyans,” just across from Banyan Mart and the Banyan Tree apartments.

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Planted by Archibald Scott Cleghorn for his daughter, Princess Ka‘iulani (shown far right), the ‘Āinahau banyan is the source for many of the banyans found throughout Hawai‘i. Image by Capt. Nicholls, Dec. 16, 1888, courtesy of the Hawai‘i State Archives.

Aerial-Rooted Agora

No other flora in Hawai‘i has been as linked to political protest as much as the hanai paniania. In 1889, Robert Wilcox organized and staged troops in Kapālama to reverse the Bayonet Constitution under a banyan’s arched spans. “We were all arranged in two lines near the banyan tree,” said Lieutenant Albert Loomens at his trial for treason after the unsuccessful revolt, just before his forced exile. That tree later served as a site for political meetings following the overthrow and is now the site of Honolulu’s most vibrant of farmers markets at Banyan Court in Kapālama. Other relatives of ‘Āinahau served as populist agoras in addition to the ‘Iolani Palace tree. The Banyan Street tree in Palama served as a meeting place for the Democratic party through the first decade of the 20th century, and the fate of a tree on the corner of King and Ke‘eaumoku was a major issue of the Honolulu mayoral race of 1968.

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Paniania remain the site of political protest. The giant banyan ring surrounding a low fountain at Thomas Square in the geographic center of Honolulu has seen an active debate over what it now means to utilize public space. From an aerial view, it’s still possible to see the original layout of the park: a rough approximation of the Union Jack, created by Don Francisco de Paula Marín, a botanist and member of the Kamehameha court, as a commemoration of Admiral Thomas, a British officer who returned the Kingdom after the Paulet Affair (when a warship captain unilaterally demanded the cession of the Kingdom). Whether one should be commemorated for returning what is not theirs is another matter; Thomas Square remains a grassy monument to decency.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. As the Occupy Movement was organizing on the continental United States, its Hawai‘i counterpart situated itself on the mauka edge of Thomas Square, calling itself (de)Occupy Honolulu. Protesters, activists, artists, and the homeless used the site to discuss Wall Street debacles with each other and passing motorists. In early 2013, the City and County of Honolulu, through the office of the mayor, installed haphazard wooden planters and fluorescent orange construction fencing along the sidewalk to remove the cohort of activists, the first time that flowers were used as an offensive weapon against free speech. It didn’t work. The (de)Occupy activists simply moved to the other side of the park, causing an arms race between planters and protesters.

If a sociologist were to do a survey, Hawai‘i has, per capita, more armchair historians and arborists—nerds that get psyched about politics and trees—than anywhere in the world. When the Honolulu Museum of Art organized a community forum regarding festering political tensions at Thomas Square, it highlighted the capacity of the arts community to produce actual solutions. At the forum, mayor Kirk Caldwell spoke of investing a million dollars in the park. Though he only stayed for the first forty minutes, he heard an earful from citizens: sovereignty activists, academics, homeless advocates, and those with general grievances against the state. The fifth speaker to take the microphone was my favorite: a middle-aged Japanese man who adjusted his reading glasses and discussed the importance of the banyan at the center of the park using a diagram on his iPad.

A few days after the political discussion of Thomas Square, I took a walk under the banyan’s boughs, as countless others have. While a homeless man argued with his mind on one corner and a teenaged couple walked a dog on another, I noticed something peculiar: The Thomas Square banyan is not one tree but four, whose branches and aerial roots have grown tangled with each other over the years, like lovers’ legs at rest. It is impossible to see where one tree’s pallid trunk ends and another begins. Where mottled shade turns to open arena, I see a hundred places to pause and whisper through surreal columns. Though the fate of the park and of the rest of our tropical, 21st century conception of the commons remains in debate, everyone is in agreement regarding the trees. The paniania, the beloved banyans, will remain.