Maui art at the Lahaina Banyan Tree in West Maui

If you’re strolling down Lahaina’s famous Front Street, you simply can’t miss the banyan tree.

Sandwiched between Lahaina Harbor and the Wharf Cinema Center, the banyan tree covers 0.6 acres. The tree is so massive that it’s said over a thousand people could gather beneath its shade. It’s Hawaii’s oldest banyan tree, and thought to be the largest banyan found anywhere in the nation.

Native to India, the banyan tree was imported by missionaries in the early 1870’s and presented as a gift to William Owen Smith—then sheriff of Lahaina. He planted the tree in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the town’s first Protestant mission. From the original, scraggly 8-foot sapling has since grown a tree that is over 60 feet tall with16 different trunks.

Unlike trees that are rooted in the ground, banyans have roots that both extend into the ground and up in the air. These aerial roots eventually grow down from the banyan’s branches to form a separate trunk. At first glance, the Lahaina banyan tree can look deceivingly like multiple trees clustered together. In reality, the banyan is single tree with one main trunk that’s set at the center of Banyan Tree Park—one of Lahaina’s top gathering spots.

If only the banyan’s boughs could talk, they would tell us of times where royal balls were held for Hawaiian royalty and the fluttering flag of the Hawaiian Kingdom flew from the nearby courthouse. The banyan also played witness to the annexation of Hawaii, and served as the backdrop as this same flag replaced by the stars and stripes in 1898. Today, this flag remains on display in the Lahaina Heritage Museum, located inside Banyan Tree Park. Only a few years later, in 1901, the Pioneer Inn became Maui’s first hotel and opened across the street from the Lahaina banyan tree.

Over the next century, the banyan tree would serve as the backdrop to important events, festivals, and gathers. Even up through the 1990’s, children would swing from the banyan’s aerial roots and play games of tag in the branches. Today, however, the aerial roots are trimmed and climbing is no longer allowed.

Though already massive, the regular trimming and grooming of the banyan tree has helped keep the tree from growing even larger. If left to grow unchecked, it could potentially be double the size with numerous trunks. Yet because it has nowhere to go, and for the fact that it already takes up an entire city block, the tree remains confined to Banyan Tree Park. As it has done for the past 144 years, the Lahaina banyan tree continues to provide needed shade to hundreds of people each day, and offers a home to hundreds of mynah birds who serenade the town with an orchestra of squawks at sunset each night.