By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Something funky’s in the air on Hilo’s bayfront, and it ain’t James Brown.
As the unseasonal lack of tradewinds has allowed a thick haze of vog to descend on East Hawaii, it has also failed to disperse a heavy, unpleasant odor that lingers near the Mooheau Bandstand and the farmer’s market.
The culprit: Terminalia chebula. The non-native tree blooms around this time each year, and its little white flowers bring with them a most-unappetizing stink, said Alice Moon, executive director of the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association.
The single tree, which sits directly behind the downtown association’s offices adjoining the bus station, provides pleasant shade for Moon and her co-workers, in addition to park visitors, and the annual stink, which lasts a month and a half to two months, is something they’ve learned to live with, she said.
“It’s bad around May or June, but the rest of the year it’s great,” Moon said. “Some people want to remove it (the tree), but I say a bad smell is a ridiculous reason to cut a tree down.”
Keith De La Cruz, manager of the Hilo Farmer’s Market, says he will happily pay to cut down and replace the tree.
“Heck, I’ll buy two trees to replace it,” he said. “To me, I just don’t think it’s good for tourists. You can hear them saying ‘What’s that smell?’ You can smell it down the whole of Bayfront. I’d plant a plumeria or something really nice. If you’ve gotta smell that thing all day while you’re working, it’s kinda like, why not switch it out?”
Downtown Improvement Association office manager Georgia Pinsky said that when the tree is in bloom, she gets regular inquiries about the odor. So much so, that she’s pasted information about the tree into a special booklet she’ll hand to tourists when they stop by.
“We don’t always smell this way,” the booklet reads. “… Terminalia chebula, indigenous to India, is a part of the Combretaceae family and known for its medicinal qualities found in the astringent chemicals produced by the tree’s fruit.
“In Hawaii, we call it the ‘Stink Tree’ because of the strong offensive smell given off by the dull white flowers, which bloom during April and May. Some say that if you sniff closely, the blossoms have a ‘too sweet’ smell. Others say that it smells like something is dying. You’re welcome to look at the tree. But please, don’t touch!”
Pinsky says she loves the tree and doesn’t mind the smell one bit. It’s a small price to pay, she says, to have such a beautiful tree that provides so many benefits.
“Micronesians sometimes come here and ask if they can pick the leaves so they can make tea out of the leaves. It’s known to be very healthy and medicinal. … I love having it here,” she said.
She added that several kupuna have told her that the tree is one of only two of its ilk in the entire state, with the second residing on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.
J.B. Friday, a Hilo-based extension forester with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, said Wednesday afternoon that he knows of a stinky tree on the UH-Manoa campus, but it’s a different species.
“I’m not aware of a single other example of the Terminalia chebula in the state,” he said. “There could be others in Honolulu, but I’m not aware of them,” he said.
Friday said he’s heard about the stink in the area before, and has even heard about people blaming the smell on people hanging around the bus stop.
“The story’s been around a couple times, that it stinks like people have been relieving themselves below the tree. But that’s not why. It’s actually the tree,” he said.
Friday said the stink could be a mechanism by which the tree attracts flies to help it pollinate.
“Some trees attract bees with sweet smelling flowers, and some attract flies with stinky odor,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s what this tree is doing or not.”
He added that regardless of how bad the smell may be, people should just learn to accept the odor as a part of nature.
“It’ll be done in a few weeks and go back to normal. People should just live with it,” he said.
Security guard Thomas Leopoldino, who watches over the bandstand and bus stop area, said Wednesay that he’s learned to ignore the odor.
“I eat my lunch under the tree every day,” he said. “It’s not so bad. I like it because it gives me shade, so I’m not so hot out here.”
But, he admitted, if the tree wasn’t so close to the building, he might have a different attitude.
“If it didn’t (give shade)? Like if it was just some tree back in the back of the yard that was stinking like that? I’d cut it down in a second,” he said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.