Over the decades, residents have gathered, feasted and proposed marriage beneath the 150-year-old banyan tree in the downtown area of Lahaina, Hawaii. But last month, after a fast-moving blaze tore through the town in West Maui, scorching the tree, some feared that it might not live on.
Then, green shoots began to unfurl around the trunk of the community’s sacred giant; others sprouted from its branches between brown and withered leaves.
This week, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources shared a video that showed bright green leaves on the tree, describing them as “positive signs for its long-term recovery.” The department noted the work of arborists volunteering their time and expertise to nurse the banyan back to health.
“When we saw the first new leaves starting to pop on the canopy of the tree, that’s when we got really, really excited,” said Chris Imonti, a landscape contractor who has spent the past several weeks carefully tending to the banyan. For many locals, he added, its regrowth symbolizes “hope, and maybe some normalcy down the line.”
On Aug. 8, wildfires swept across the island of Maui and killed at least 97 people. Most of Lahaina, a community of 13,000 that was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, was destroyed.
The tree, a Ficus benghalensis, or banyan fig, was just eight feet tall when it was planted in 1873 to commemorate a Protestant mission to Lahaina a half-century earlier. Years of careful tending by residents helped the tree grow, according to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit preservation organization that describes the tree as the largest of its kind in the United States. Towering more than 60 feet near an old courthouse, the banyan tree has become a cherished landmark for locals.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, some arborists and foresters feared the worst for the tree. Its trunk appeared badly charred, and its canopy — which had grown to cover more than half an acre — was burned, its leaves browned to a crisp.
But Mr. Imonti said that when he visited the site around a week later, he was pleasantly surprised to find living microbes in the soil, as well as some root growth and green tissue inside the trunk. “The tree was technically in major shock but was still alive,” he said.
For the next several days, contractors and construction companies rallied to deliver 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water a day to the banyan, soaking the soil in an attempt to nurse the tree’s roots back to health, Mr. Imonti said. The next step was dousing the foliage and surrounding area in a liquid concoction, called “compost tea,” that includes worm castings, sea minerals and kelp to hasten the tree’s uptake of nutrients and minerals. After the second treatment, “we saw a lot of new root growth,” Mr. Imonti said. By the third, new shoots began to appear.
While he and others are hopeful for the tree’s full recovery, they caution that it will take some time and may not be complete. Nearby, other trees, including historic breadfruit or ulu trees, which are culturally significant to native Hawaiians, are also needing extra care in the wake of the fire, he and others said.
Steve Nimz, a volunteer arborist who has been helping to restore the banyan, said that he was optimistic, given that trees have long adapted to severe conditions such as hurricanes, storms and fire. “It’s not like they haven’t been through this before, through the millions of years they’ve been around, so they do adapt,” he said.
He cautioned that it might be too soon to identify the lasting effects of the fire. “Just because the new leaves come out doesn’t mean the tree is going to completely make it — it just means that the tree is moving in the right direction,” Mr. Nimz said.
“The tree’s going to be talking to us,” he added. “And we’re going to listen to the tree.”