After Maui Wildfire, a Chance to Save a Revered Tree

Before colonialism, commercial agriculture and tourism, thousands of breadfruit trees dotted Lahaina.

Hokuao Pellegrino picks a fruit off a breadfruit tree at Noho'ana Farm, Waikapu, Hawaii, Oct. 10, 2023.
Hokuao Pellegrino picks a fruit off a breadfruit tree at Noho'ana Farm, Waikapu, Hawaii, Oct. 10, 2023.
AP Photo/Mengshin Lin

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) β€” For people around the world, the green leaves that sprouted from a scorched, 150-year-old banyan tree in the heart of devastated Lahaina symbolized hope following Maui's deadly wildfire this summer. Teams rushed to flood its roots with water, hoping to save a magnificent tree that had provided shade for community events, a picturesque wedding venue and a popular backdrop for posing tourists.

But the fire also nearly wiped out another set of trees, one with a much longer history in Lahaina and a greater significance in Hawaiian culture: breadfruit, or ulu, which had given sustenance since Polynesian voyagers introduced it to the islands many centuries ago. Before colonialism, commercial agriculture and tourism, thousands of breadfruit trees dotted Lahaina; the fire charred all but two of the dozen or so that remained.

Now, as Maui recovers from the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century, one that left at least 98 people dead, a band of arborists, farmers and landscapers has set about trying to save Lahaina's ulu, kukui nut and other culturally important trees, in some cases digging down to the roots of badly burned specimens to find live tissue that could be used to propagate new shoots.

They see the destruction as a chance to restore the trees to Lahaina, to teach about their care and use, and to reclaim a bit of the town's historic identity amid a larger discussion about whether the community's reconstruction will price out locals and Hawaiian culture in favor of deep-pocketed outsiders seeking a slice of tropical paradise.

"Even in this tragedy and the destruction, there is a lot of hope in our communities that there is opportunity here to bring awareness and appreciation and incorporation of some of our values and history and identity," said Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, an associate researcher of indigenous crops at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The banyan tree at the center of Lahaina was a sapling when it was planted in 1873 β€” a quarter century before the Hawaiian Islands became a U.S. territory and seven decades after King Kamehameha declared Lahaina the capital of his kingdom. It was a gift shipped from India to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina.

The sprawling tree is beloved, towering more than 60 feet (18 meters) and spanning nearly an acre with aerial roots descending from its boughs. It has provided shade for locals and tourists alike in a town whose name means "relentless sun." But for some it also continues to represent the colonization that eventually transformed Lahaina into a travel destination.

By contrast, researchers believe breadfruit and kukui nut β€” now the state tree of Hawaii β€” were among the many edible plants Polynesian voyagers brought around 1,000 years ago. Such imports could have been carried across the ocean, wrapped in rotted coconut husk and dried leaves and protected in a woven coconut basket.

Kukui nut oil was used for torches β€” kukui is known as the "tree of light." Other uses included wood for canoes, dyes for tattoos and bark infusions for preserving fish nets.

Ulu can grow to 60 feet (18 meters) tall, with large dark green leaves, and each can bear hundreds of pounds of breadfruit. A staple in some tropical countries, the fruit looks like an oversized, scaly lime. It is typically eaten cooked and is starchy, like potatoes or bread. It has a short shelf life, rotting within 48 hours of ripening.

Kaipo Kekona, a ninth-generation Lahaina native, has led efforts to restore its ancient food forests for several years. He said ulu can be made into dishes resembling mashed potatoes, French fries, mousse, hummus, cakes, pies and chips, and that it can help ensure food security when other industries fail, such as tourism during the pandemic or after the wildfire.

"When we look at reforestation efforts in our town, reclamation of ulu and its historical value, it can be complemented by the evolving palates of our community," Kekona said.

The footprint of the burn zone largely overlaps what is known in Hawaiian history as Malu 'ulu 'o Lele: "the shaded breadfruit grove of Lele," Lele being an earlier name for Lahaina. By the late 19th century many of those trees had been burned to make way for sugar plantations. Fresh water sources at streams and canals were diverted. Development transformed the landscape into a tourism destination with far fewer trees.

Efforts to revive the banyan and other important surviving trees have included trucking in water, applying compost extract and testing soil. The volunteers working to save Lahaina's breadfruit have dug down to extract viable root matter. In one case, they peeled back asphalt that butted against a charred breadfruit trunk. Underground, they found life.

The samples they collected are now in a University of Hawaii lab in Hilo, on the Big Island. Lincoln projects hundreds of trees could be propagated, with seeds or saplings being given to homeowners seeking to replant their properties.

But replanting breadfruit in urban areas comes with challenges, said Steve Nimz, an arborist on Oahu who has been helping restore Lahaina's trees.

When ripe breadfruit falls, it splats and rots in an unsightly, gooey, fragrant mess. Trees planted near a sidewalk or public area could pose a threat to passersby, as some varieties have fruits weighing up to 12 pounds (5.5 kg). Falling breadfruit can cause serious injury.

"You probably don't want to put breadfruit in a really high traffic area," said Hokuao Pellegrino, an ethnobotanist who has helped in the volunteer effort and who has 22 breadfruit trees on his own farm in Waikapu, on the other side of the West Maui Mountains from Lahaina. "But restoring some of the breadfruit groves as part of the individual homeowner's landscape, now that is a worthy cause, because those can be managed a little bit better."

Pellegrino said the efforts to replant breadfruit in Lahaina should also come with efforts to teach people about its care and its uses: "We want people to use the breadfruit. We don't want it just to be in the landscape."

But for now, many are more focused on housing and cleaning up after the disaster than on what trees to eventually plant. Pellegrino, who calls himself an outsider because he's not from Lahaina, says reintegrating breadfruit and restoring wetlands, canals and streams could bring a new future for the town.

"It's about reclaiming the identity of that place," Pellegrino said.

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