Banyan trees are common in Hawaii but they grow in a very uncommon way: their roots are in reverse, reaching down to the ground from the branches above. These enormous trees give shelter from both sun and the frequent light misty rain, providing a gathering place for commerce and conversation. A single banyan can shelter a vast expanse of ground — check out the size of the picnic tables in the photo to get an idea of this tree’s reach. It is not unusually large, either.
The name “banyan” is used to apply to several types of fig trees. It was originally used to refer to traders in India who gathered in the shade of the large trees to do business. According to Wikipedia, by 1634 English travelers wrote about banyan trees as places for village meetings, as well as the sale of goods. The term was later used to describe the tree itself.
The roots of the tree are called “aerial prop roots” — they drop down from the tree to make contact with the ground and eventually grow into additional tree trunks. A banyan is often a collection of tree trunks and roots that make it appear as though the tree is walking across the park. I saw one tree inside a rock wall with smaller, roots growing into trunks on the outside. It looked like the tree was trying to escape, or was stepping over a very large curb. Sometimes, the roots are trimmed up to prevent them from reaching the ground.
Hawaii boasts several especially huge banyans, like the one in the Courthouse Square of Lahaina, Maui, said to be one of the largest in the world. A Hawaii banyan tree on the Ainahau Estate sheltered Robert Louis Stephenson and Princess Victoria Kaiulani as they “talked story” in the late 1800s. The life of the princess is celebrated as part of a free historical tour at the Waikiki Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotel, which stands on the grounds of the former royal estate.
Most tour operators make sure to point out banyan trees, but you really can’t miss them on your Hawaii vacation. Once you’ve walked among the tree and its upside-down roots, it is easier to understand many of the stories, both true and fiction, that are centered in or beneath banyan trees. In Hawaii, they continue their traditional role: providing shelter for weekend picnics, celebrations and holiday gatherings, exchanges of stories or a quick conversation in the shade.