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‘Our Kuleana’: Daughters of Hawai‘i Working to Ensure Royal Banyan Tree Continues to Watch Over Kona

By Nathan Christophel
August 4, 2022, 4:00 PM HST
* Updated August 4, 3:07 PM
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The Royal Banyan Tree stands in front of Hulihe‘e Palace in downtown Kailua-Kona. (Photo by Joshua Lambus)

A Big Island nonprofit whose mission is rooted in preserving the ways of old Hawai‘i is taking steps to ensure an iconic tree on the grounds of Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona continues to watch over the community for generations to come.

The Daughters of Hawai‘i is raising funds to help keep the Royal Banyan Tree in front of the palace on Ali‘i Drive healthy and vibrant. According to Regent Manu Powers, the ficus is in dire need of a trimming. Funds raised will also be used for an extended maintenance program for the tree.

Daughters of Hawai‘i Regent Manu Powers testifies July 19 via Zoom during a regular meeting of the Hawai‘i County Council. (Screenshot from video)

“Each one of us here, who have grown up on the island, have probably passed under her branches for our entire lives … thousands of times probably,” Powers testified July 19 via Zoom during a regular meeting of the Hawai‘i County Council. “She has looked over us for all of these years and now it is our kuleana to look over here.”

She added that the Royal Banyan is not a small tree, so it needs to be handled with care and by a professional.

“And that’s not a small endeavor either,” Powers testified.

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The Daughters of Hawai‘i fundraising efforts got a boost from the council last month with its approval during the July 19 meeting of two resolutions that provide a total of $5,000 in grants from council District 7 and 8 contingency relief funds.

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“For the safety of our community, for the safety of Ali‘i Drive and those that pass under it, which is most of us who live in Kona, that tree needs some actual arborist to come in, who we have already lined up, and maintain her for us,” Powers said during her testimony. “But we can’t do it without the support of the community and the support of the council.”

The Daughters have a group of volunteers that meets monthly to discuss the palace and its grounds, the Royal Banyan included. However, Powers said time and tide are always working against the organization and resources are limited. The organization is working with Shamrock Tree Service, a family owned and operated business with more than 20 years of experience with the Royal Banyan that is committed to the tree’s health and maintenance.

An arborist will provide a thorough inspection report of the tree, which Shamrock Tree Service will use as a guide to trim the tree accordingly.

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“Shamrock Tree Service knows her well and has a plan to maintain her integrity,” Powers told Big Island Now in a recent email, adding that the tree is also pruned by Hawaiian Electric periodically and when necessary to ensure the safety of the wires around it.

Each trimming of the tree is different and varies according to the work required at the time. The cost follows accordingly. The upcoming trimming is one of the more major trimmings the organization has undertaken for the tree in many years and will cost nearly $10,000.

“This comes on the heels of the pandemic, where our revenue was virtually eliminated for months on end while our fixed costs remained,” Powers said. “We are constantly forced to reprioritize incredibly important and pressing projects ranging from the sea wall to the shutters, but the banyan is always on our radar and an extremely high priority.”

She said the Daughters do their best to fund regular maintenance of all the trees on the palace grounds, but the Royal Banyan is special.

“She requires the help of professionals, such as an arborist, which means paying a premium,” Powers said.

As the story goes, an Indian prince gave a seedling from a 1,000-year-old tree from his home country as a gift to King Kalākaua. The tree was planted at ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu. A cutting from the new tree was planted in the 1880s at Hulihe‘e Palace by Queen Kapi‘olani.

That cutting became the Royal Banyan Tree. Powers explained it is called “royal” because Kapi‘olani planted it.

“The majesty of the tree speaks for itself, but beyond that, the banyan is one of the very few remnants of the idyllic childhood memories of those of us that grew up in Kona,” she said. “Change is the only constant in life and this tree has stood watch over the palace and us for the entirety of our lives. Kama‘aina and visitors alike have passed beneath her branches more times than we could ever count.”

Another view of the Royal Banyan Tree in front of Hulihe‘e Palace in downtown Kailua-Kona. (Photo by Joshua Lambus)

When the Daughters became the caretakers of Hulihe‘e Palace in 1925, the tree also became their kuleana.

“Our sense of responsibility to her is great and we are grateful and awed by the support the community has shown for her,” Powers said, adding that the Daughters also have a deep appreciation for the council, in particular Kona council members Holeka Inaba and Rebecca Villegas, who each introduced one of the resolutions that provided the recent grant funds for the banyan tree.

She said the council recognizes the importance of cultural and historical touchstones, and Villegas and Inaba consistently support the places, people and events that make Kona so special and unique.

Powers added the support from the council is invaluable, as it serves as an acknowledgment of the tree’s place in the community.

“But the public’s support is an integral part of what is making this project possible,” she said. “It is a lovely illustration of how beloved the tree is and how she not only resides in the heart of the village, she also resides in the heart of it’s people.”

Powers’ connection with the Royal Banyan is clear by how she refers to the tree as a “she.”

“When an individual becomes regent of the Daughters of Hawai‘i, she has the honor of addressing the membership at the organization’s annual meeting,” she said. “My first speech concluded with a nod to the banyan — to her strength and serene nature.”

She promised the membership that as regent she would endeavor to embody the Royal Banyan’s characteristics when working to successfully execute the organization’s mission of continuity and preservation.

“The tree serves as an inspiration to me every day in my work and I visit with her each time I am on the palace grounds,” Powers said.

At its core, the Daughters of Hawai‘i is a preservation society. It was founded in 1903 by seven women, citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom before annexation, with a mission “to perpetuate the memory and spirit of old Hawai‘i and of historic facts, and to preserve the nomenclature and correct pronunciation of the Hawaiian language,” according to the organization’s website.

With so much changing, Powers hopes the Royal Banyan Tree will help further that mission for years to come.

“Driving down Ali‘i Drive just this week, I’ve seen more than a few new development projects,” she said. “The Kona that I knew is not the Kona my mother knew, nor will it be the Kona my daughter knows.”

Powers wants to see the Royal Banyan will persist.

“I’m hoping that my great-grandchildren will walk under her branches someday and know that our community, our generation, worked to preserve it,” Powers said during her testimony to the council last month. “Not just for the aesthetics, but for the most important component which is continuity, which is an important part of our culture and of who we are as people.”

For more information about the Daughters of Hawai‘i and the Royal Banyan Tree, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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