According to my friends from Bali, one of the safest places in an earthquake or during a big storm is near a banyan tree. Many cultures and religions believe that the banyan is sacred. The bo tree, or Ficus religiosa, that is revered by Buddhists is one example. Some believe that for a soul to migrate from this existence to the next, it must travel through a banyan.
There are almost 500 species of Ficus including several species of banyan and the edible fig. None are native to Hawaii, but many species have been introduced over the years. Some of the most spectacular specimens are found on Banyan Drive in Hilo and at Hulihee Palace and King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel in Kailua-Kona.
Some in Asia are hundreds of years old and cover thousands of square feet. The common rubber plant, Ficus elastica, and Chinese banyan, Ficus benjamina, are cute house plants, but when planted in a tropical garden, they can become giants.
About a decade ago, the namesake tree at Banyans surf spot was killed. We don’t know who did it or why, but recent efforts to remove some trees on Banyan Drive and perform major pruning of the great old trees at Kailua Bay are painful reminders of what can happen if we aren’t attentive. I wonder how many trees will need to be planted to make up for the loss of trees destroyed every year by folks who don’t care.
Surrounded by the Kona Bali Kai Condominium, the original tree at Banyans surf spot was probably one of the largest of its kind in Hawaii. The seeds were said to have been brought by a ship captain after visiting Moreton Bay on the east coast of Australia where it is known as the Moreton Bay Fig or Ficus macropylla. No one knows the exact age of the tree, but it was well into its second century of life. The landmark was nominated as a horticultural treasure by the Hawaii County Exceptional Tree Committee and was one of those special trees to be protected for future generations to enjoy. Unfortunately, a few people complained about the maintenance of falling leaves and even the noise that roosting mynah birds made in the morning when some folks like to sleep late. Some complained it blocked the view.
The tree is dead, but the Kona Outdoor Circle, the community, surfers and others helped by replacing the old giant with one of its offspring growing nearby. Of course, it will be a century before the young tree reaches the great dimensions of its ancestor. When you get a chance, stop by the Banyans surfing spot to visit that young tree.
Some blame the shock of severely butchering the tree as the cause of its death. Careful pruning is vital and will need to be carefully monitored if it is to be done on the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel tree. Examples of over-pruning or “hat racking” can be seen all over our island. Very often, it causes the tree’s long-term demise. We need to protect these historic specimens in our communities. Some places require permits before any potentially harmful work can be done. It is something our County Council and mayor might consider. In the meantime, you can avoid involuntary tree slaughter by knowing and applying proper pruning methods in your own garden.
By proper pruning, you can increase the amount of light available to under-story plants. Since some light is essential to plant vigor, it is a good idea to open up those heavy canopied trees. Even if you carefully select the right trees for your yard and shade lovers for underneath, there comes a time when you have to consider pruning.
Whatever the natural form is in the beginning, it should be maintained, and this means individual handling of each problem. Trees should be pruned to remove enough of the canopy to allow gale force winds to pass through them. Heavily topped or “hat-racked” trees will be more susceptible to damage from disease and insect attacks in the long run, so this practice is not recommended. When it comes to palms, excessive removal of leaves is also a bad practice. Large-fruited types like the coconut may have fruit and inflorescences removed. Removing too many leaves will actually weaken the tree in the long run and cause a condition called “pencil top.”
Some knowledge of pruning is necessary for the gardener who does his own work. A good set of pruning tools is necessary, including a pair of side-cutters for removing twigs and small branches. You will also need a pair of loppers for cutting branches up to 3/4-inch in diameter, a pruning saw, a tree pruner on a pole and in wet areas of the island, water-proof paint for covering wounds. Painting wounds is controversial, but it does tend to minimize fungus rot and insect invasion in some high-risk situations.
Pruning should be done for a purpose, such as to maintain shape, remove diseased or awkward branches, or to reduce the size of a vigorous grower, like a ficus tree.
Pruning becomes an important chore for several reasons. Trees that respond to day length and bloom during the winter or spring months should be pruned lightly through the summer months. Heavy pruning may expose branches to sunburn and dying of damaged bark later.
Occasionally, cool season can be wet or windy, especially if we get one of those nasty storms. Trees that are likely to be damaged during periods of high winds should be pruned to decrease damage caused by the storms.
Weak and diseased branches and twigs should be removed when noticed. Citrus trees may be gone over lightly two or three times a year. Such pruning is done from the inside. Dead wood and “water shoots” or suckers should be removed as they appear. When a weak or unwanted branch is removed, it discourages disease and insect damage.
The bottom line when it comes to pruning is that if the job is a big one and you aren’t sure about what you are doing, then hire an insured certified arborist. Pruning is dangerous. If someone gets hurt, you may find it is much more expensive than hiring a professional.
Much of the pruning that has occurred recently has been to clear trees away from utility wires such as on Palani Road. Ideally, an island that depends on beauty to attract visitors should place more value on trees than we do. In the long run, placing utilities out of the way of tree-lined streets would solve the problem. So far, we have put utilities first and eliminated trees, but it is obvious that this does not make our streets very attractive. The utility companies are concerned and want to work with the public, but it will take some creative planning and implementation to achieve cool, shady communities. Work with your local politicians, Hawaii Island Landscape Association and join to support one of the Outdoor Circles to see if we can do a better job to make our island clean, green and beautiful.