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Vol. 7, No. 1
February/March 2004


Roots Revival 

by Pamela Frierson

A grove of coconut trees
on Molokai, planted for
King Kamehameha IV
well over a century ago.
photo: Douglas Peebles

Call me a tree-hugger and I’ll take it as a compliment. I’ve always loved trees, all trees, from the base of their gnarled, messy roots to the tip of their lofty, leafy crowns. So when I heard we have a program in Hawaii to designate certain Island trees "exceptional," I wondered how anybody could possibly decide which trees to include. For an indiscriminate arbo-phile like myself, selecting these worthies seemed like a mind-boggling task.

To find out more, I called Mary Steiner, head of the Outdoor Circle, an Island institution dedicated to "keeping Hawaii clean, green and beautiful." Mary’s another admitted tree-hugger. When I asked her about the selection process that confers special status on individual trees, she noted that preference depends on "historical or cultural value, age, rarity, location, size, aesthetic quality or endemic status." But how, I pressed, do you actually decide? The whole thing seemed as subjective to me as a beauty pageant or a bake-off. Mary admitted it wasn’t easy. "Here’s a way to get a sense of the range of qualities that are considered," she said. "I’ll send you on a little tree treasure hunt. Go look at the monkeypod trees at Moanalua Gardens. Then drive down to Ala Moana Beach Park, walk out to the tip of Magic Island and look at the last tree, an Indian banyan."

I set off. Minutes later, I was standing under one of the Moanalua monkeypods. It was over 200 feet in diameter and its branches—spread out in a broad umbrella shape—defied gravity. They held up pale pink blooms and lacy green leaves that seemed to flare along the edges as the sunlight filtered through. The term "exceptional" hardly began to convey the size and beauty of this tree—but I understood why people felt the moniker was needed.

The not-yet-full-grown Magic Island banyan that I visited next was a different story. A park bench and a trash can stood next to it and two women with babies rested in its shade, but nothing made it stand out from dozens of other banyans in Ala Moana Park.

The first banyan tree in the
Islands was planted by
Archibald Cleghorn on the
grounds of his Waikiki
estate, Ainahau. The tree was
a favorite of Cleghorn's
daughter, Princess Kaiulani,
who is pictured in
the branches at right.
photo: Hawaii State Archives

This tree’s exceptional designation, Mary told me later, came from its exceptional history. It was grown from a cutting taken from an enormous banyan that once stood at the corner of King and Keeaumoku in downtown Honolulu. That tree had been planted in 1863 from a cutting that came from a now-vanished Waikiki tree that stood on royal lands. The Waikiki matriarch had been cherished by Princess Kaiulani, who often sat in its shade chatting with her friend, Robert Louis Stevenson.

By 1963, a century after it was placed in the ground, the King-and-Keeaumoku cutting had become a green giant, and the city proposed to cut it down to widen the road. An ensuing battle to save the tree lasted four years and saw protests of all kinds, including an eleventh-hour occupation of the banyan’s huge limbs. The battle was lost, but, says Mary, the war was won. "It left a big legacy. It was clear to many people we needed some kind of legal protection for our most valuable trees."

That protection came in 1975 when the state created a program—the first of its kind ever in the United States—that allowed people to nominate a tree (even a grove of trees) as exceptional and worthy of safekeeping. The state created arborist advisory committees in every county, and today their members are the ones who review recommendations and have the difficult task of deciding whether a tree makes the cut.