Stately and iconic, the monkeypod is one of the most cherished trees of Hawaii—enhancing landscapes and streets, providing shade from the tropical heat, and serving as a keen reminder of the islands’ dramatic natural history.
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Called saman in Spanish and “raintree” around the globe, the monkeypod tree arrived in “The Sandwich Islands” in 1847, when Peter A. Brinsmade of Ladd & Company—one of the first sugar plantations on the islands—introduced two seeds from Panama to the volcanic soil. The first seed was planted at the crossroad of Bishop and Hotel Streets in downtown Honolulu, Oahu; the second in the historic district of Koloa on Kauai. Today, those kernels are believed to be the progenitors for the hundreds of monkeypod trees currently found throughout Hawaii.
And for good reason: The seeds swiftly took to the Aloha State’s diverse climate, particularly in savannahs, wherein the trees grow can grow up to 80 feet. With gorgeous umbrellas of thick foliage and short but sturdy trunks, the monkeypod has become synonymous with the islands’ organic beauty—particularly on Oahu, where the island’s largest monkeypod tree spawned a canopy that traverses nearly an acre.
Native to South and Central America, and found in the U.S. regions of Florida and the Virgin Islands, the monkeypod tree was also a source of fascination for one of Hawaii’s most famous annotators:
Mark Twain, who first came to Hawaii when he was 31, is credited for planting a monkeypod tree on the Big Island in 1866—a time in which the Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) were in grave decline. Presently, that tree in Waiohinu has become something of a roadside tourist destination on the southernmost tip of the island, where it continues to flourish in an otherwise end-of-the-world town and reminds all that see it of Hawaii’s complicated history.
The grass may be greener on the other side, but it’s also—literally—greener underneath a monkeypod tree.
Due to its shape and size, the monkeypod—which is frost intolerant—shields vegetation underneath its awning. In other words, the grass beneath a monkeypod tree remains vibrant even during the bone-dry center of a drought because the pods, leaves, and foliage that fall to the ground possess the capacity to release key elements in a process dubbed “nitrogen fixing.”
Such an ability to both give and thrive has rendered the monkeypod tree something close to sacred throughout the world.
In Maracay, Venezuela, one can revel in the beauty of the “Saman de Guere”—a national treasure and historical landmark that may be as old as 500 years and which once provided shelter for Spanish generalist Simon Bolivar’s liberation army.
Here in Hawaii, the tree inspired one of the most popular restaurants on Maui (Merriman’s award-winning Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea) and served as a stalwart sign of home for surfer and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and memoirist, William Finnegan.
With its pink, tufted blooms—which tend to flower in Spring—the monkeypod has become one of the most ubiquitously photographed and painted trees in the islands, finding its way onto everything from hand towels to sculptures. The tree also had a place within Hawaiian royalty: Peacocks, which were venerated by the ali’i, spent nights amid the high branches of monkeypods only to swoop down from their perches to preen under the shade in the mornings. In our modern era, eight miles—yes, miles—of white lights are strung around the monkeypod trees in front of the Grand Wailea during the resort’s annual tree lighting ceremony. And—for some pop culture trivia here—monkeypods were used to construct the Swiss Familly Robinson’s famous treehouse in the 1960 film adaptation.
Part of the legume family, the monkeypod tree isn’t celebrated just for its beauty.
Its branches and trunk—which can span up to twenty feet in diameter—are used as timber by master woodcutters, who deem the durable wood a boon for furniture, ornamentals, and dishes. (Chances are you’ve seen quite a few monkeypod bowls and walking sticks peddled as souvenirs.) Fibrous enough to make paper, it’s been employed to create papyrus in Asia for centuries. And given their large canopies, they’re frequently planted to proffer shade, especially for crops like cacao, coffee, and vanilla.
Monkeypod trees have also long been touted for their medicinal purposes in select cultures.
The inner bark and leaves is used as a folk remedy for intestinal distress in the Philippines. In Venezuela, the roots are steamed for hot baths to manage symptoms of stomach cancer. Locals of the West Indies, meanwhile, chew the seeds to soothe sore throats.
Having come by its quirky name through its Greek roots—the Mediterranean culture christened the ornamental tree, Pithecellobium, which loosely translates to “monkey’s earring”—the monkeypod tree additionally serves as a source of food.
Its pulpy pod produces an anise-flavored fruit, thus explaining why it’s called the “licorice tree” in certain parts of the Caribbean. In other cultures, the pulp is used to make a drink that bears resemblance to both tamarind and lemonade. And sustenance from the tree isn’t relegated to humans—animals seek out the pods as well. Some researchers, in fact, believe that its use as livestock feed is one of the reasons the tree has spread to so many varied environments.
While it tends to thrive in tropical regions—it’s been naturalized in Hawaii, as well as in Brazil and Puerto Rico—the tree has its sensitivities.
Each leaf, which is comprised of four to eight leaflets, folds up in the late afternoon to persist through the night (they do the same during cloudy weather and storms).
Its roots, however, are remarkably robust. Surface roots stretch far, leading to hazardous road conditions in some parts of the islands (and their removal from parts of Oahu). Known as the mimosa tree in the Philippines, it’s also considered by some as taxing on native ecosystems, primarily as a “nuisance tree,” in that it grows where it pleases.
Should you be visiting Maui, search for this picturesque tree across the island, particularly at lower elevations and in the grasslands of Wailea and Makena.
(One of the loveliest displays of monkeypod trees can be found on Makena Road before reaching Maluaka Beach.) Stand beneath one long enough and you may note a honey-scented drizzle, which is created by sap-sucking insects, while times of heavy flowering often create a waterfall of showering stamens. Then consider yourself fortunate: Oahu’s Moanalua Garden’s iteration of the elegant monkeypod is called the $4 million tree. Thank Hitachi for the title: it’s one of the most widely recognized corporate icons in Asia.
Some of the photos are courtesy of Natalie Brown Photography.