CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
A bo tree was planted when the Honolulu Myohoji temple in Nuuanu was erected in 1968.
Bo tree enlightened Buddha and enlivens gardens
It was the majestic, graceful bo tree that Prince Siddhartha Gautama is said to have meditated under for many years when he attained enlightenment as the Buddha (fully enlightened one). The tree is considered sacred by Buddhists as well as Hindus and commonly planted near temples. This majestic tree can be seen in many places around Hawaii as we approach Bodhi Day on Dec. 8, celebrating the prince's enlightenment.
The tree (also called peepul and sacred fig tree) has shiny green, heart-shaped leaves with long tails and distinctive veins, making it instantly recognizable. The leaves might remind you of a kite with a long tail -- and it's the quivering of these leaves in the mildest of breezes that makes the bo tree seem even more enchanting. Stronger winds move the elastic branches, and the leaves appear to dance on their long stems.
This elasticity allows the tree to withstand some of the world's strongest winds and floods. Its latex-filled branches (common to most members of the fig or ficus family) bend with the strong winds common to its many tropical habitats without breaking. (Remember those satellite photos taken after the devastating tsunami in Indonesia? The spots of green included species of ficus known to be tenacious.)
The bo tree, tagged with Its scientific name (Ficus religiosa), can be seen at many botanical gardens -- Waimea Valley Audubon Center, Foster Botanical Garden, Hoomaluhia botanical Garden and Wahiawa Botanic Gardens. It is also found in public parks and residential landscapes. A giant bo tree in a gulch behind Wahiawa Hongwongji appears to gracefully shelter the building from the mauka winds. Another is on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus near Hawaii Hall.
Botanists George Staples and Derral Herbst, in their "A Tropical Garden Flora" (Bishop Museum Press, 2005), say a famous specimen of the bo tree was growing at a monastery in Sri Lanka, from a cutting taken from a descendant of the tree under which the Buddha is said to have meditated.
During the days that Mary Robinson Foster owned and lived on the land in Nuuanu that now is part of Foster Botanical Garden, monks from the Sri Lankan monastery sent her a bo tree cutting in gratitude for her support of their work. Foster later donated that land and the many plants she had collected there to the city of Honolulu. Her will provided for the conversion of her Nuuanu Street home's 5.5 acres into a botanical garden.
Each summer, Foster Botanical Garden hosts a spectacular "Mid-Summer Night's Gleam," with many of the garden's acres of trees highlighted with soft lights that give them a magical appearance. It is the bo tree near the statue of the Buddha that attracts the most visitors. It takes on a serene glow as tiny white lights on its branches move in the breeze. Visitors have been allowed to clip pieces of paper bearing private wishes and personal goals to the branches (but check first to see if the practice is still allowed if you attend the next "Gleam," on July 19).
The bo tree is pollinated only by a specific wasp -- one that until recently was not found in Hawaii. Local trees, therefore, were all believed to be grown from cuttings, not seeds. But Lori Buchanan, head of the Maui-Molokai Invasive Species Committee, learned this month of a bo tree sapling that appears to have grown from a seed near mature trees on private land on Molokai.
A new wasp introduced to the Kalaupapa area is the suspected pollinator. Buchanan will be working with state, federal and community groups to discuss strategies for dealing with the invasive wasp and the new potential of having an introduced plant -- albeit a sacred tree -- from becoming a threat to native rain forests. Buchanan would appreciate hearing from anyone who has seen a bo tree seedling (call 567-9081 or 553-5326).
This makes us understand, once again, why we have to be so careful when flying back to Hawaii from the mainland or even when traveling interisland. The tiniest non-native pest could bring major headaches for years to come.
teaches botany, ethnobotany and environmental science at Chaminade University. Her column runs on the last Monday of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com