A few months ago, the first large banyan tree on the east side of Hilo’s iconic Banyan Drive transformed from a majestic tree into a collapsed mess.
“I was working every day, then one day I noticed it,” said Miki Malama, an employee of the nearby Naniloa golf course. “And we want to know what happened.”
Luana Richardson, president of Friends of Banyan Drive, said Hawaii County officials told her the tree had collapsed on itself, but how and why remained a mystery. She speculates it could be related to pruning done by county workers, or perhaps invasive wasps killing decades-old banyan trees.
The collapsed tree is on state land, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, but is leased to the county’s Department of Public Works and the Naniloa Resort Hotel. A DLNR representative said most of the trees were within county road boundaries, while others were within the three leased properties and it was the tenant’s responsibility to maintain them.
Several attempts have been made with the DLNR and the county Department of Public Works to seek clarification as to how the tree collapsed, but no explanation has been received.
But whatever the reason for the collapse, Richardson said it highlights the need for a plan on how to save the trees for future generations. It’s tricky because the trees are in an area that involves a complex group of companies, with responsibility for upkeep split between state, local and private entities.
“I feel like there are a lot of alternatives we can do to save them,” Richardson said. “What would Banyan Drive be without the trees?”
Banyan Drive sits on an archipelago that meanders along the coast. The road is an attraction due to its beautiful trees whose collective canopy provides a shaded tunnel that weaves through luxury hotels and a golf course – and the stories and history behind the trees.
They were planted primarily in the 1930s through the 1950s to commemorate American movie stars, Hawaiian royalty, explorers, politicians, and “other fascinating people who lived at a time when the world was on the brink of a monumental change,” according to Jane’s blurb. Hoff’s book “The Trees of Banyan Drive”.
The tradition of planting non-native trees on the road started in 1933 by screen star Cecil B. DeMille, who was in Hawaii to shoot a Hollywood movie. A week later, Babe Ruth arrived in Hilo for an exhibition game and planted another banyan tree.
The following year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the island and he “planted” a tree, which was not easy to install because it was partially crippled and it was a dirt road with vegetation invasive. Roosevelt only touched the tree and threw dirt on its base from inside his car.
It has become a tradition, with around 50 banyan trees eventually planted. They included one by Amelia Earhart in 1935, five days before she set a world record flight from Honolulu to Oakland, the first solo flight across the Pacific Ocean.
Other trees were planted with wooden signs with the names of Louis Armstrong, Babe Ruth, Richard Nixon, King George V, Queen Elizabeth and volcanologist Dr Thomas Jagger. Some have planted their trees. Some didn’t, others did it in their honor.
Most of the trees survived three tsunamis that devastated Hilo, but many of their wooden panels are rotten, faded or missing.
Sherise Kana’e-Kāne, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, said the county was in the process of bidding for the tree trimming contract. But no action is planned to fight against the invasive gall wasp, which infects historic banyan trees.
The wasps, which also infect other trees locally and across the state, burrow into tree branches to lay eggs and leaves behind larvae that prevent the trees from growing new leaves. These issues, along with overgrowth, pose a challenge to a road famous for its history, a shaded walking and jogging route, and a popular route for residents and visitors.
Winston Welch, executive director of Outdoor Circle, a grassroots organization focused on environmental conservation, said: “I think what we need to do is understand: ‘How do we go from forward to take care of these extremely iconic trees?’
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