The trees arrived with Polynesian voyagers. After Maui wildfire, there’s a chance to restore them

by Joshua Brown
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Wildfire Restoration

The arrival of trees with Polynesian voyagers and their subsequent role in the aftermath of the Maui wildfire has become a symbol of hope and cultural significance for Lahaina. The scorched banyan tree, dating back 150 years, not only provided shade for community gatherings but also served as a picturesque wedding venue and backdrop for tourists. Efforts to save this magnificent tree were swift, with teams working diligently to irrigate its roots.

However, the wildfire’s impact extended beyond the banyan tree, affecting another set of trees deeply rooted in Lahaina’s history and Hawaiian culture: breadfruit trees, known as ulu. These trees have been a source of sustenance since the time Polynesian voyagers introduced them to the islands centuries ago. Before the influence of colonialism and tourism, Lahaina was dotted with thousands of breadfruit trees, but the wildfire left only two out of a dozen or so remaining.

In the wake of Maui’s deadliest wildfire in over a century, a dedicated group comprising arborists, farmers, and landscapers has embarked on a mission to rescue Lahaina’s culturally significant trees, including ulu and kukui nut trees. Their efforts involve meticulously inspecting charred specimens to identify live tissue that can be used to propagate new growth.

This restoration initiative extends beyond mere tree preservation. It represents an opportunity to reintegrate these trees into Lahaina’s landscape, educate people about their care and utility, and reconnect with the town’s historic identity. Amid discussions about the post-fire reconstruction’s impact on the local community and Hawaiian culture, these efforts are seen as a means to promote awareness and appreciation of heritage and values.

The banyan tree at Lahaina’s center, planted in 1873, holds historical significance, having been gifted from India to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lahaina’s first Protestant mission. It stands as a towering symbol, providing shade in a town known for its relentless sun. However, for some, it also serves as a reminder of colonization and the transformation of Lahaina into a tourist destination.

In contrast, breadfruit and kukui nut trees were among the edible plants brought by Polynesian voyagers around a millennium ago. These imports were likely transported across the ocean, wrapped in rotted coconut husks and leaves, and protected in woven coconut baskets. The kukui nut tree, referred to as the “tree of light,” had various uses, including torches, canoe construction, tattoo dye, and fish net preservation.

Ulu trees can grow up to 60 feet tall and bear hundreds of pounds of breadfruit, a starchy, potato-like fruit with a short shelf life. The versatility of ulu makes it a valuable resource, with culinary uses ranging from mashed potatoes to cakes and pies. Moreover, it plays a crucial role in ensuring food security, particularly when other industries, such as tourism, face challenges like the pandemic or natural disasters.

Efforts to revive these trees involve complex tasks, including trucking in water, applying compost extract, and soil testing. To save the breadfruit, volunteers have gone as far as excavating viable root matter, even peeling back asphalt to uncover hidden life. These collected samples are currently being studied in a University of Hawaii lab with the potential to propagate hundreds of trees for replanting.

However, replanting breadfruit in urban areas presents challenges due to the fruit’s tendency to fall and rot quickly when ripe. Some varieties can weigh up to 12 pounds, posing a risk to pedestrians if planted near sidewalks or public spaces. Thus, careful consideration is necessary in selecting suitable locations.

In the midst of recovery efforts following the devastating wildfire, the focus is understandably on housing and cleanup. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of breadfruit and the restoration of natural features like wetlands, canals, and streams could shape a new future for Lahaina, one that aims to reclaim the town’s identity and heritage.

In conclusion, the story of Lahaina’s trees, from the historic banyan to the culturally significant breadfruit, represents not only a tale of resilience but also a commitment to preserving cultural heritage and fostering a sustainable future for this beloved Hawaiian town.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Wildfire Restoration

What caused the destruction of trees in Lahaina?

The destruction of trees in Lahaina was primarily caused by a devastating wildfire that occurred during the summer.

What is the significance of the banyan tree in Lahaina?

The banyan tree in Lahaina holds historical significance, having been planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. It is a cherished symbol and a source of shade for the community.

Why are breadfruit trees important in Hawaiian culture?

Breadfruit trees, known as ulu, are of great importance in Hawaiian culture as they have provided sustenance for centuries, dating back to the time of Polynesian voyagers. They hold cultural and historical significance.

What efforts are being made to save Lahaina’s trees?

A group comprising arborists, farmers, and landscapers is actively working to save Lahaina’s trees, including ulu and kukui nut trees. They are involved in tasks such as irrigation, propagation, and education about tree care.

What challenges are faced in replanting breadfruit trees in urban areas?

Replanting breadfruit trees in urban areas presents challenges due to the fruit’s tendency to fall and rot when ripe. Some varieties can be quite heavy, posing safety risks in high-traffic areas.

How does the restoration of these trees relate to Lahaina’s identity?

The restoration of these trees is seen as a means to reclaim Lahaina’s historic identity and cultural heritage, fostering a sense of community and preserving values and history in the face of post-disaster reconstruction.

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