A Living Landmark
This 160-year-old banyan tree is an enduring Waikīkī institution rooted in history.
IMAGES BY KAINOA REPONTE AND SKYE YONAMINE
“It’s been here since the beginning,” says Steve Nimz, craning his neck to gaze up at the 60-foot-tall Ficus benghalensis, or Indian banyan, that grows from the center of the International Market Place. Its impressive thicket of branches spirals upwards, stretching across the entire courtyard and offering much-needed shade. “Any tourist from any time that visited Hawaiʻi would have had to visit this tree.”
Nimz has been caring for the tree since 1971. Back then, the International Market Place was a 4.5-acre maze of carts hawking kitschy treasures and tourist souvenirs, a vestige of Donn Beach’s tiki-themed fantasy.
“I was excited because it was a challenge,” Nimz says.
Originally from Michigan, he moved here in 1967 to study tropical agriculture at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
Since then, he has acted as the chief consulting arborist for projects throughout the state, including tending to this iconic banyan. “It has such a unique shape and structure, and such a rich history,” he says.
Indeed, the banyan’s roots run deep. Even before Donn Beach uttered the words “International Market Place,” the tree already occupied the space.
It had been planted by New Zealand hotel entrepreneur Harry McFarland in the mid-1800s, when the property hosted his family’s home. Endemic to India, the banyan’s role in Hindu culture as a symbol of shelter for travelers made it a fitting choice for the future mecca of tourism.
In 1957, when Beach imagined this site as the International Market Place, the tree was an integral element. Kiosks and restaurants were built around it, rather than it being torn down. A treehouse was built atop its branches that acted as Beach’s office.
From it, Hal “Aku” Lewis broadcasted his popular radio show in the 1960s. (Today, one can visit a replica built at the original site.) In the following decades, the banyan’s expansive canopy became part and parcel of the International Market Place’s aesthetic.
In 2014, when plans for a reimagined International Market Place were proposed, preserving the nearly 160-year-old banyan was high on the list.
Classified as one of Honolulu’s exceptional trees, which are defined as “a tree, stand or grove of trees with historic or cultural value … worthy of preservation” under the state’s Exceptional Tree Act, the banyan could not be cut down or altered without expressed permission from the city.
Caring for a celebrity tree is no easy task. While Indian banyans are extremely resilient according to Nimz, their tough bark and winding roots letting them withstand almost anything, measures still needed to be taken to ensure its health. For the 18-month period of development, a tree protection plan Nimz designed was put in place.
Orientations were mandated for everyone involved with construction, and any handling of the banyan needed to be first approved by Nimz. Sensors were placed throughout the tree to monitor its moisture levels, like checking its vital signs, so that he could act quickly if it was under stress.
Indian banyans are quite common sights in Waikīkī.
“But what makes it special is its unique background, its unique history,” Nimz says.
For more than a century, this banyan has been a constant fixture during the area’s continuous evolution. When visitors walk through its tangle of aerial roots or sit at the base of its trunk, they’re interacting with history.
In the summer of 2016, as construction of the new International Market Place wound down, Nimz noticed that the banyan seemed distressed. Its leaves drooped, covered in dust and lacking their usual verdant color. He began to worry. But then, just before the center’s grand opening, it shed the leaves and sprouted new ones—as if ushering in a new era for the International Market Place and affirming its steadfast status amid the constant flux of Waikīkī.