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Nearly 200-year-old tree in Hilo gets some TLC

May 19, 2014 - 7:46am

Within the branches of the 194-year-old Kamani tree that towers over the corners of Haili and Ululani streets are many stories.

For Mary K. Namahoe, 85, it’s a tale of her childhood, youth, religion and community.

“When I was a little kid, we had a bench completely around the tree,” she said. “All the old folks would gather outside after church and stand around the tree…”

Namahoe’s father, Steve Descha Jr., and grandfather, Steve Descha Sr., were preachers at the mid-19th century Greek-revival church known today as the Haili Congregational Church. It also happens to be one of Hilo’s oldest churches.

From 1906-44, the church sponsored a weekly Hawaiian newspaper, Ka Ho Ku O Hawaii, printed every Thursday.

Namahoe, a young girl in those days, said her cousin’s plan to make some quick cash off the paper failed miserably.

“My cousin, I won’t mention any names because I don’t want to get in trouble, but my cousin decided he wanted to go to the Palace Theater but he didn’t have enough money,” she said. “So, he grabbed a stack of newspapers, and I didn’t look at them or anything, and he told me to go sell it to the old folks sitting under the tree…

“They bought the newspaper and next thing I know, everyone was crying. I didn’t know what was going on. Well, as it turned out, he didn’t look at the paper and it was a newspaper about World War I. They all thought we were going to war again!”

Namahoe paused to laugh and look toward the tree before continuing.

“So, my dad got really upset and asked my cousin what happened and he pointed to me! I said I didn’t do anything!” she said with a laugh.

Namahoe had plans with friends that day but she canceled them to visit the church to watch the ancient tree get a little bit of a face-lift Friday.

Church member Kelsey Bufil said the tree was in desperate need of maintenance as its branches were projecting halfway across Haili Street and putting stress on above power lines.

Namahoe said the tree was getting to be “too much.”

“Last year was the worst year. The leaves and the nuts…Oh my! They were everywhere!” she said.

But in order to cut off a few branches from a 194-year-old tree that is part of a national historic tree registry, the church’s board of trustees had to jump a few hurdles.

Finally, the board received approval and employees of Tree Works Inc., a tree trimming, pruning and removal company based in Papaikou certified to perform work on historic trees, worked to remove the debris and appendages while Bufil, Namahoe and others stood by to reflect on and appreciate the tree’s natural beauty.

For Bufil, the tree reminds him of his childhood.

“Before I started coming to the church, as a child I would look at the tree and say, ‘wow, that’s a big tree.’ I would stop to climb the tree…

“Now, it’s taken on an even bigger significance.

“The kupuna grew up with the tree and watched the tree,” he added. “We like to say in church to look at the tree, be like the tree, because it’s like our church. It’s strong; it’s held together…”

Email Megan Moseley at