Reviving the Roots of Lahaina

The King’s View of Mokuʻula painting by Janet Spreiter

NTBG Supports Wildfire Recovery With Breadfruit

By Mike Opgenorth, Director of Kahanu Garden and Preserve

In the early days of August 2023, people across the Hawaiian Islands were bracing for the possible arrival of Dora, a powerful hurricane churning into the central Pacific. Dora grew in intensity but continued to track westward, hundreds of miles south of Hawaiʻi, sparing the islands from a direct hit. However, other meteorological forces were at play. To the north of the islands, a steep pressure gradient and an anticyclone conspired, birthing a wind vacuum that spiraled southward across the islands.

For Maui residents, strong winds are a normal part of life, but last August’s unusual confluence of hot, dry conditions and ferocious winds gusting over 80 miles per hour through the Kauaʻula Valley led to disaster. Descending in what is called a “downslope windstorm,” the winds funneled through Lahaina[1], in a scene reminiscent of what was vividly documented[2] in a May 1867 edition of the Hawaiian newspaper Ke Au Okoa:

“This wind, the Kauaʻula, blows from directly above Kauaʻula Valley…The roaring is heard from above like the crashing of the sea against the base of a cliff. When it blows, it is something truly terrifying — houses topple, coconut trees snap, all the breadfruit trees are hewn into pieces, and banana stalks are all pushed down by this angry wind.”

When a fire caused by downed power lines broke out on August 8, the winds fueled a wildfire that razed Lahaina. Tragically, at least 101 lives were lost, over 2,200 structures were destroyed, and the community was left grappling with displacement, unemployment, and a starkly altered reality.

Kauaʻula Valley. Photo by Mike Opgenorth

Six months later, Lahaina and west Maui residents find themselves on another leg of this journey — one moving toward healing, recovery, and renewal. What has been heartening for me as a resident of Hāna, on the east side of Maui, is that beyond adversity, a newfound sense of communal strength is emerging. Families are coming together, sharing resources as they are bound by a collective spirit to strengthen their sense of place.

Revival is about more than just reconstruction. It is an opportunity to redefine this place from the ground up. It is encouraging to watch Lahaina’s leaders and lineal descendants engage in dialogues about how to prevent future calamities and how to preserve the biocultural heritage of this storied place.

At the heart of these conversations is water which supported Maui’s now defunct sugar cane industry for over a century at the expense of many traditional Hawaiian farmers. Decades of plantation agriculture, and more recently, commercial real estate development, led to the aridification of traditional crop lands that once sustained Lahaina, the first capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Charred trunk of ʻulu pūloa, a historic breadfruit

Two historically iconic places in Lahaina — Mokuʻula (reddish island), and Malu ʻUlu o Lele (shaded breadfruit grove of Lahaina), have become focal points of conversations about how to create a more symbiotic relationship with nature while honoring the abundance of this space prior to Western contact.

Mokuʻula, once a regal abode for Hawaiian royalty, today lies dormant beneath layers of dirt and coral, covered by a ball field in 1914. Before last August’s wildfire disaster, discussions around Mokuʻula’s resurrection centered on water usage. In the wake of the tragedy, the rebuilding of Lahaina opens a door to a possible revival of this rich heritage.

The second historic place, Malu ʻUlu o Lele, is known for its pre-contact agroforestry system that provided abundance for Lahaina’s population. Important crops like kalo (taro), ʻawa (kava), and ʻulu (breadfruit) provided a cooling effect that created a buffer against torrential heat and drought. This agroforest, however, was largely removed during the sugar plantation era.

The vision to reincorporate aspects of Malu ʻUlu o Lele faces its own challenges in a world vastly different from the past. Scarcity of land, limited water resources, and the scars of multigenerational displacement all present hurdles. Fortunately, there is widespread agreement that incorporating fire-resistant planting through practices like agroforestry can also mitigate vulnerability to extreme weather events.

Return to Roots

In recent months, there has been increased recognition of the important role breadfruit can play in the revival of landscapes that include Mokuʻula and and Malu ʻUlu o Lele. Along with those who are collectively preparing for the future, NTBG is honored to play a small part in returning the benefits of breadfruit to Lahaina. We continue to listen to important voices like Kaliko Storer, a well-respected leader on west Maui who is on the mayor’s five-person advisory committee. She said, “the kāhea (call) is going to come from the community for more ‘ulu when the time is right.” This encourages us to start preparing now and continue checking in with the ʻohana (family) from Lahaina. About ten trees have already been transfered, with dozens more at Kahanu Garden’s nursery.

Left: A young ʻulu. Right: Kahanu Garden’s breadfruit collections manager Kaitu Erasito with young ʻulu.

Top: A young ʻulu. Bottom: Kahanu Garden’s breadfruit collections manager Kaitu Erasito with young ʻulu.

When cleanup from the fire began, there were concerns that fire-affected trees would be removed without ensuring their genetic and storied lineage was preserved. Conversations about how best to protect these irreplaceable trees took place between Lahaina community members and Noa Lincoln, an Indigenous crop researcher at the University of Hawaiʻi. When NTBG joined these conversations, we expressed interest in collecting breadfruit roots in order to preserve different varieties within the collection at Kahanu Garden. With Noa working to duplicate trees that could be returned to Lahaina and NTBG planning to preserve collected roots at Kahanu Garden, we saw hope for the future. Breadfruit material salvaged from the burn zone will require several years to reach a size suitable for replanting in Lahaina, but in the meantime, Kahanu Garden can offer breadfruit from our already well-established collection.

In December, Kahanu Garden’s breadfruit collection manager Kaitu Erasito joined me on a trip to Lahaina to meet with multi-generation descendants and members of the community[3] to collect advantageous roots and cuttings from badly damaged breadfruit trees. In the weeks since that trip, Kaitu has watched tirelessly over the carefully harvested roots. Kaitu says, “It is important to conserve these historic breadfruit trees because of food security. For the people of Lahaina, breadfruit was part of their history, it was part of their ʻohana, and part of their diet. We want to support its return.”

Maui’s community came together after the wildfires of 2023. Photo by Hōkūao Pellegrino

Going forward, we are preparing to plant ʻulu o lele (breadfruit of Lahaina) as part of Kahanu Garden’s collection so that it will always be preserved. In the future, as root cuttings grow and propagules become available, we look forward to bringing those breadfruit saplings back to Lahaina. In the meantime, we have been collecting breadfruit root starts from large Hawaiian breadfruit trees near the Piʻilanihale Heiau to share with our neighbors.

Kaipo Kekona, a lineal descendant of Lahaina, shared a vision of possibilities last year after the fires saying, “if we want to talk about food security, what if every property was required to plant an ʻulu tree, and maintain that tree in order to build? It would recreate that halau (house) of ʻulu trees.”

These trees carry stories in their bark and their deep green leaves echo a time when breadfruit provided sustenance and shade to the people of Lahaina. As these saplings take root under our care, they will grow not just into trees, but living embodiments of hope and resilience, representing a physical link to the past, and a promise of a vibrant future.

The King’s View of Mokuʻula painting by Janet Spreiter

[1] Archaic pronunciation: Lāhainā, Lit., cruel sun (said to be named for droughts)

[2] Translated by Bishop Museum and Awaiaulu

[3] Including Kapalana Colliers, Gretchen Losano, Kaipo Kekona, Hōkūao Pellegrino, Noa Lincoln, Jesse Neizman, and others

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