Honoring Punahou’s Historic Tamarind

Punahou’s over 175-year-old tamarind tree, a beloved fixture between Alexander Hall and Mamiya Science Center, has reached the end of its expected lifecycle and will be cut down and removed this week.

The towering tamarind, planted during Punahou’s first school year in 1842 by students, has had a long and storied history, yet it was recently deemed too damaged to safely remain in place, with its hollowed center. A certified arborist’s test revealed unsalvageable damage.

“We loved this tree, and we’re trying to honor it in as many ways as we can, but safety is our ultimate responsibility here for faculty, staff and our students, which we can’t compromise,” said John Field ’72, Punahou vice president and treasurer.

The tree, which has shaded generations of students with its lush branches, leaves and fruit, was at the end of the natural lifecycle for a tree of its type. Punahou is home to more than 760 trees. The tamarind was one of a small handful of them that were removed this summer for safety reasons.

To ensure the tamarind’s legacy, Punahou’s groundkeepers harvested its seeds and plan to plant seedlings in the same place. The tree’s wood will also be collected and preserved for future use by students and artisans.

Sun Yat-sen, former President of the Republic of China, brought seedlings from the tamarind back with him to China after attending Punahou, then known as Oahu College, in the 1880s. It is said that he enjoyed studying under the tree and eating its fruit, which inspired him to take seeds back to China. The revered tree, which still stands at his former residence, may soon be joined with new seedlings, according to Punahou Trustee emeritus Warren K.K. Luke. “I want to keep the tradition alive,” he said.

Highlights from the tree’s lifetime

  • Tamarind trees are slow-growing and long-lived, with 150- to 200-year life spans. The species was favored by early settlers to Hawai‘i and planted on many old homesteads.
  • The tree was planted by Anderson Forbes (who attended Punahou from 1842 – 1847) and other Punahou students who tended the campus’ farmland as part of student life during that era.
  • The seedling descended from trees first brought to Hawai‘i in 1797 that were planted by Spanish horticulturalist Don Francisco de Paula Marin in Pauoa Valley.
  • The tree’s birthday was honored at the Punahou Centennial Celebration in 1941, where 100 of its seedlings were sold to raise money to endow a Tamarind Tree Scholarship Fund.

A continued legacy

The beloved tree’s lineage will live on near and far. Punahou’s other tamarind tree near Montague Hall most likely descended from the 177-year-old tree, and more may live on across the Island as a result of the Centennial Celebration seedling sale.

Salvaged wood will be given to a few local woodturners to make into bowls and other pieces for the School. Wood will also go to the Frear Wood Shop for students to work with. Finished products from the wood will be kept in the Punahou Archive for future generations to enjoy.

The beloved tamarind’s life cycle continues with its seedling filling the place of the 177-year-old parent tree. Michel Sebastian, Physical Plant Supervisor, placed the young tree in its new home on Aug. 15. 

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