Tropical Gardening: Trees need special love and attention

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE This historic Australian banyan, also called the Morton Bay fig, at Kailua Bay was planted during the time period of the Hawaiian monarchy. Trees such as these need our protection or we might lose them.

Trees, shrubs and other vegetation are the lungs of the planet, so the more the better, especially in urban and suburban settings.

Some of our ancient historical trees, such as the banyan at Kona’s King Kamehameha Beach Hotel in Kailua-Kona, get so big we tend to overprune them to keep them in scale. This amazing tree is the first thing visitors see as they enter by ship at Kailua Bay, so it is important that the tree is properly maintained.


The spectacular banyans that frame Banyan Drive in Hilo are another example of unique trees needing love and attention. Joan Gossett of the East Hawaii Outdoor Circle alerted us that there is an insect injuring the Banyan Drive trees that must be controlled. The Outdoor Circle and community leaders are making the effort to keep these trees healthy.

They also are giving away 850 assorted trees Saturday, June 29, at Hoolulu Park to keep our island clean, green and beautiful.

A certified arborist or companies that specialize in tree care can do the job without negatively affecting the health of the tree.

The loss of these truly amazing members of the fig family would be tragic. Imagine the destruction of the Malayan banyans on Banyan Drive.

The Great Banyan on the grounds of Kona’s Hulihe‘e Palace is another that is now protected, but a few decades ago, there was concern it might be cut down. The Morton Bay fig at Banyan’s surfing spot was not so lucky. Someone possibly poisoned the tree. The excuse used was that it was blocking the view.

Fortunately, the Hawaiian community demanded the tree be replaced; although, it will take many years to achieve the proportions of the original tree. Seedlings of the original tree were planted at the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary in Kaloko Mauka, and because of the ideal environment are now almost 100 feet tall in just 35 years.

By proper pruning, we increase light availability to understory plants. Since some light is essential to plant vigor, it is a good idea to open up these heavy canopied trees.

Even when we are careful to select the right trees for the landscape, and shade lovers for underneath, there comes a time when we must 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 in such a manner as to remove enough of the canopy so as to allow gale force winds through the tree. Most tree experts agree that heavily topped or hat racked trees will be more susceptible to disease and insect attacks, so this practice is not recommended.

Pruning should be done for a purpose, such as to maintain the natural shape, remove diseased or awkward branches or to reduce the size of a vigorous grower.

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 through the summer months.

Many of our tropical trees grow rampant with extensive root systems. That is why we prune to keep them from getting out of hand, but let’s not forget the roots might need some pruning, too. This is best done after hurricane season.

The King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel has had to deal with this problem through the years. The famous Indian banyan tree on the makai side of the hotel was actually lifting the corner of the building. With love and respect for trees, a certified arborist was called and together, with the support of the hotel folks and the community, they solved the problem.

Since the King Kam banyan branches reach out over the pavement, it creates a challenge. However, there is ample room to allow some aerial roots to attach. The tree is on county and hotel lands, so being creative and allowing it to have support will require cooperation between the two entities and support of our community.

The trouble with roots of many big trees such as banyans is that they are greedy. Fortunately, there are many landscape plants such as Monstera, Pothos, Philodendron and Bromeliad species and ground covers such as Ruellia that will tolerate these conditions.

Pruning trees and their roots can be dangerous, so if the job is major, it is better to call in a qualified arborist. This also will aid you in avoiding a butcher job that will cost a lot more in the long run.

When it comes to fertilization, it is better to keep it on the light side until late fall. Then an application of a complete fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, plus trace elements, will carry trees until spring.

Trees are part of the beauty of our islands. They supply oxygen and sequester carbon. They also cool the environment, as our weather is getting warmer and warmer.

Rather than destroying these valuable assets, work with them.


Proper selection of plants to grow under their protective canopy is important. Proper pruning, fertilization and irrigation are essential, and it is much better than paving over paradise.

For more information about tree care, contact the UH Master Gardener Helpline at 322-4893 in Kona or 981-5199 in Hilo.

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