Gusts, saturated ground likely toppled 150-year-old tree at Queen’s Medical Center

Queen's Medical Center

A historic tree at Queen’s Medical Center has survived heavy rains and strong wind gusts for 150 years.

The Nawa tree (Sterculia urens) stood 120 feet tall. That is, until it came crashing down at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, near the drop-off area of the hospital.

Not a lot of people saw it come down, but everyone around the hospital heard and felt it once the tree landed.

Some described the sound as loud thunder.

“When I heard the cracking, I thought someone had an accident, but when I turned around and looked, the tree came down already,” said Armando Silva.

Two groundskeepers suffered minor injuries. They were walking and talking, but were sent to the emergency room to be checked. No patients were impacted.

The administration building was grazed by its branches. Officials say it could have been much worse.

“I think we’re just lucky that nobody was sitting on the two benches that fronted the tree where the tree fell,” said Honolulu Fire Department battalion chief Jim Skellington. “We really lucked out on that, and we’re really lucky that nobody was in the vicinity of the tree.”

Experts are surprised that the tree came down at all. They tell us that all the trees at the hospital are inspected every six months, both from the ground and from up above.

“We have aerial lifts where they go up and they look from above, because there’s parts of the trees where you can see from above that you can’t see from down below, so they’re inspected from top to bottom quite frequently,” said D. Mark Gwinner, Queen’s landscape design manager.

“We do a lot of tests on trees. We can identify decay in trunks and we can identify trees that have a high risk of failure. This definitely was not on any of those lists,” said arborist Steve Nimz.

Experts believe the latest bout of heavy rains and the strong wind gusts just softened the ground and uprooted the tree.

It was planted 150 years ago by Dr. William Hillebrand, the medical center’s first physician and a noted botanist.

Because of its history, the tree was designated as an “exceptional tree,” one of about 50 in Hawaii.

According to the City & County of Honolulu Exceptional Tree Program:

“This spectacular tree is a native of India. Its huge five-lobed leaves are very popular for use in dried flower arrangements. The seed pods are to be avoided, for they consist of needle-like fibers that are extremely painful to the unwary collector. Queen’s Nawa is the largest of its kind in the United States.” – The Queen’s Medical Center

Crews are working on chopping the tree into smaller pieces, and at least part of it will remain at the hospital in some form, possibly in the form of wood paneling.

“Based on the quality of the wood and what some of the woodworkers choose to do with it, we are definitely planning to save some and do something so that we still have the tree here on the property for another 150 years,” Gwinner said.

There are two other “exceptional trees” at Queen’s Medical Center. They have a wider base and are more stable, and Nimz says he’s confident that they’re not at risk of coming down.

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