Like most of Hawaii’s flora, the banyan tree is not native and was introduced to the islands. The tree hails from India, and they are the world’s largest trees in terms of land covered. In fact, the largest banyan tree lives in Andhra Pradesh. The massive fig tree covers more than 4.7 acres and can shelter up to 20,000 people from the rain.
The beautiful trees have been mentioned in Hindu texts dating back more than 2,500 years. The texts say that the banyan tree is sacred and that the tree’s hanging roots bring blessings to earth from the heavens.
And you can see these heavenly trees up close on Banyan Drive in the city of Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island. The trees thrive in Hilo’s moist air, and short, tree-lined drive is deeply rooted in American history.
The banyan trees that line Hilo’s coastal Banyan Drive are decades old. The city of Hilo began planting the beautiful trees back in 1933, and each tree has a plaque to tell you which celebrity planted the banyan.
The idea for Banyan Drive was sparked by the filming of the movie “Four Frightened People.” The Cecil B DeMille movie was released in 1934, and its filming brought a host of celebrities to Hilo. City officials took advantage of the opportunity, and they had the movie stars plant the trees along Banyan Drive to put Hilo on the map. The opening of Banyan Drive even prompted a visit by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
You’ll be amazed at the drive’s rich history with names like Amelia Earhart, Richard Nixon, Louis Armstrong, and FDR. And you might be tempted to simply drive by the trees, but it’s worth stopping in order to pursue the plaques, take a few social media pics and appreciate the beauty of the banyan up close.
Tsunamis have bashed some of the banyan trees down over the years. In fact, Richard Nixon’s banyan tree had to be replanted after a tidal wave. But 50 of the original banyans have survived, and new banyan trees are planted by the city to keep the drive as beautiful as ever.
The first thing you’ll notice about the banyan tree is its roots. These roots wind their way to the ground from the tree’s limbs to create an intricately patterned apron. The roots continue to take hold around the tree to expand the banyan’s territory, and the territory can grow acres for a single tree.
These roots are actually capable of strangling other plants and trees in the area, so the city of Hilo carefully prunes the roots to keep the Banyans from taking over Hilo’s entire coast. Despite the roots’ strangler-like aggression, they create beautiful rooms and hallways underneath the banyan trees that can be large enough to enter. It creates quite a peaceful environment. It’s no wonder the ancient Hindus regarded the banyan as a spiritual tree.
Banyan tree leaves are used to treat a variety of ailments in Nepal, and the banyan tree has been officially adopted as the official tree of India. Alexander the Great was one of the first Europeans to encounter the tree back in 326 BC, and the tree’s leaves were mentioned in John Milton’s Paradise Lost back in the 17th Century.
Banyan Drive is located just east of Bayfront Park in the city of Hilo on the northeast coast of the Big Island. You can find the loop road by turning towards the ocean on Lihiwai Drive along the eastern shore of the Wailoa River. Turn right onto Banyan Drive and it’ll take you around Naniloa Golf Course back to the city’s main Mamalahoa Drive.