Photo Gallery: See Some of Honolulu’s Exceptional Trees
We spent weeks contemplating some of O‘ahu’s oldest, biggest and most impressive trees to capture their natural magnificence.
The idea came while we were walking through a park just minutes away from downtown. It seemed simple enough: Photograph the oldest trees in Honolulu. Finding them, however, is anything but simple. First, we had to eliminate ones that grow in the wild. After all, how could we say with any certainty that a giant koa—which the U.S. Forest Service says is difficult to date because the tree doesn’t grow rings—is older than another species on another island? Then, with quarantine rules firmly in place, we decided to restrict our hunt to O‘ahu. (Sending regards to Lahaina’s 147-year-old banyan, the oldest in the state.)
Trees with documented histories here are largely urban giants planted no earlier than the 1800s. The Outdoor Circle and city have already been documenting and protecting many of them through Honolulu’s 45-year-old Exceptional Trees program. Since it was established in 1975, the first of its kind in the nation, 172 sites have been named encompassing more than 200 trees. You can find out more about every one on the list through The Outdoor Circle’s interactive map.
We sent photographer Aaron K. Yoshino to spend time capturing some of the elders on the list on public land, so you can take a moment to drink in their resilience and beauty. See more about each tree, then look through our full gallery below.
Benjamin Fig (Ficus benjamina)
Location: The front lawn of Roosevelt High School, 1120 Nehoa St.
When we called around to find out more about the 64-foot fig tree, no one seemed to know anything about it. It doesn’t have a plaque or any easily accessible records in the school history. In 2001, then director of Honolulu’s botanical gardens Heidi Bornhurst wrote in her column in The Honolulu Advertiser that the tree was the best example of the Benjamin banyan left on the island. She noted that renowned botanist Dr. William Hillebrand introduced the plant to the Islands, but the two large banyans in his garden, which became Foster Botanical Garden, were weakened by diesel oil sprayed on them in the 1940s to keep away dengue-fever carrying mosquitoes. The trees later fell in a storm.
Mango, Manakō (Mangifera indica)
Location: Nu‘uanu Valley Park, 2925 Pali Highway, to the right of the parking lot
The pirie mango tree at the Walker Estate usually gets the most love from writers—likely because the 5.7-acre estate is home to seven other exceptional trees—but just half a mile down Pali Highway is another mango tree on the city’s list. In the center of the sloped lawn, standing 66 feet tall and with just a solitary picnic bench under its outermost branches, this exceptional tree sticks out among the wide canopies of surrounding banyans. The Outdoor Circle’s Exceptional Tree Map online adds just one note: It produces a great deal of mangoes.
Kapok Trees (Ceiba pentandra)
Location: Foster Botanical Garden, 1438 Nu‘uanu Avenue
Considering the garden’s founder, Dr. William Hillebrand, is credited with introducing dozens of plants to Hawai‘i in the mid-19th century, it should not be surprising that his own yard holds 1 out of every 5 of O‘ahu’s Exceptional Trees. The kapok is one of the oldest and most impressive. Hillebrand planted his at the now Foster Botanical Garden around 1851, making the 88 ½-foot kapok about 170 years old. Visit during the spring when the tree blooms. The mature pods break open and the buoyant “floss” inside, which is used to fill life preservers, floats to the ground.
Baobab (Adansonia digitata)
Location: University of Hawai‘i Mānoa, Art Building, 2535 McCarthy Mall
It’s an arresting sight: a large, angular building that appears to have been built around a baobab tree. That’s exactly what happened. When Gilmore Hall was demolished amid protest in 1973, the new art building was designed to accommodate the then 30-year-old tree. UH says the baobab is one of the largest in the United States. Greenery has been a priority since UH was established in 1915 and botanist Joseph Rock began adding hundreds of plants to the grounds.
Earpod (Enterolobium cyclocarpum)
Location: Waialua Public Library, 67-068 Kealohanui St.
The library and nearby gas station are dwarfed their almost 120-year-old neighbor that spreads its canopy over the parking lot between both. The 64-foot-tall earpod is the only exceptional tree on the North Shore and was planted in 1902. The earpod was one of the first species Dr. William Hillebrand grew in his garden in the 1850s as the wood was thought to be good for a future shipbuilding industry. Now, it’s a popular choice for veneer and paneling. There are six places on O‘ahu with exceptional earpod trees, including a grove of 23 on Schofield Barracks.
Kapok (Ceiba pentandra)
Location: Dept. of Agriculture, 1428 S. King St.
The oldest of the kapoks in the Islands is at Foster Botanical Garden, but this younger sapling, a mere 130 years old or so, had the grandest canopy of the urban trees near the intersection of busy Ke‘eaumoku and King streets. The 75-foot-tall kapok measures 151 inches around and is one of three exceptional trees on the grounds of the former Territorial Board of Agriculture building that was built in 1930. The other two are the only mamee apple (Mammea americana) and West Indian elm (Guazuma ulmifolia) on the list.
Indian Banyan (Ficus benghalensis)
Location: Kaʻiulani Elementary School, 783 N. King St.
You’ll find more Indian banyans on the list of Exceptional Trees, 24, than any other species. Most are in Waikīkī, including the signature banyan at the International Market Place. But the heartfelt story behind the signature tree at the Kalihi school stands out. When Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani died in 1899, the school was opened in her honor. Her father, Archibald Cleghorn, clipped a branch from the princess’s favorite banyan tree at home and gave it to the school where it grows today and even serves as the logo on the school sign and buildings.
Pink Bombax Tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum)
Location: Queen’s Medical Center, right of the roundabout
The more than 150-year-old bombax tree was planted by Dr. William Hillebrand to continue Queen Emma’s mission to make the hospital grounds welcoming. Its “garish” pink blooms, as Manager of Landscape Design and Development David Gwinner calls them, always draw attention. The flowers, which look like shaving brushes, appear in late March. He prefers the leaves, which emerge a deep red then mature into green. Another favorite is “when it’s actively growing, the bark swells … and you see deep colors of green in the smooth bark,” Gwinner says. “The leaves turn red and the bark turns green; it’s kind of an arborist’s delight.”
Here is the gallery of images of these magnificent tress taken by Aaron K. Yoshino.