Maui has been burning since Tuesday—engulfed in wildfires that continue to spread across the Hawaiian island, destroying its western region and killing more than 50 people. In the coastal town of Lahaina, a bustling tourist destination and home to about 12,000 people, at least 271 buildings have been decimated, and a historic landmark is at risk: a 150-year-old banyan tree.
Lahaina business owner Tiffany Kidder Winn returned to the scorched town on Wednesday to observe the damage, telling Bobby Caina Calvan and Jennifer McDermott of the Associated Press that the site “looked like a warzone.” Amidst the devastation, the tree was badly damaged but still standing. “It’s burned, but I looked at the trunk and the roots and I think it’s going to make it. … It was kind of this diamond in the rough of hope.”
Others are less optimistic. Based on images of the damage, “it certainly doesn’t look like that tree is going to recover,” James B. Friday, an extension forester with the University of Hawaii, tells the New York Times’ Jacey Fortin. He adds that the layer of bark protecting the tree may have been too thin to withstand the fires.
Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lahaina was favored by royalty, whalers and missionaries alike, according to the National Park Service. Kamehameha I, Hawaii’s first king, made the town his royal residence over two centuries ago, following his conquest and unification of the Hawaiian islands. Lahaina remained the kingdom’s capital until 1845. Its now-famous banyan tree took root a few decades later, as an eight-foot-tall sapling planted in front of the Lahaina Courthouse and Lahaina Harbor. The tree was a gift shipped from India to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina.
Banyan trees are capable of spreading laterally, as their branches grow aerial roots that reach down into the ground to form new trunks. A famous 250-year-old tree near Kolkata, India, spans roughly four acres, resembling a small forest, and is often cited as the world’s largest banyan. But another banyan called Thimmamma Marrimanu in Andhra Pradesh, India, is slightly larger at about five acres (though some experts have argued that it’s even wider). “Legend has it that a woman named Thimmamma threw herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband in 1434 and one of the pyre poles spouted to become a young tree” according to Guinness World Records, which lists Thimmamma Marrimanu as the “largest canopy on a living tree.”
Lahaina’s banyan tree is the United States’ largest, standing 60 feet tall and covering an entire city block. Its more than 46 trunks cover two-thirds of an acre. As the AP puts it, the tree has been “the heart of the oceanside community” for a century and a half, serving as a landmark, shade-provider and gathering place.
Banyan Tree in Lahaina smoldering at the base, but still standing. Just about the only thing left, other than the Lighthouse. pic.twitter.com/t0lGeOwY2H— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) August 10, 2023
Having already lost their homes, many Lahaina locals fear the demise of this historic natural beauty. Satellite imagery and social media videos show the tree’s bare branches, its vegetation burned away, reports CNN’s Alisha Ebrahimji. As he toured the devastation, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz also captured on-the-ground video footage of the tree.
“It’s said that if the roots are healthy, it will likely grow back,” wrote county officials in an update on Wednesday, “but it looks burned.”
Editor’s note, August 14, 2023: This story has been updated to provide more information about the world’s largest banyan trees.