Exploring Hawaii and the National Tropical Botanical Garden
For being a lush paradise full of exotic, tropical plants, it’s surprising that most people don’t even know the U.S. has a National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG). Made up of five gardens–four in Hawaii and one in Florida–the institution’s mission is to save rare tropical plants from the verge of extinction while functioning as a living collection for endangered plants, some of which no longer exist in the wild. Plants from all across the Pacific Islands are conserved in the Hawaiian gardens under the NTBG umbrella, so one doesn’t have to travel far-and-wide to experience the flora of even more remote places.
Because of its geographical situation, Hawaii is teeming with unique plant life. Volcanically formed over the course of millions of years, it’s one of the most isolated island chains in the world; this remoteness resulted in a considerably high number of endemic species (meaning those that are found only in Hawaii– and in some cases, those that are found only in a single valley on a single island). The flora and fauna in these regions are so exceptional that when Charles Darwin heard about the island chain, he claimed to have wished he’d developed his evolution theory in Hawaii instead of the Galapagos.
Kauai, Hawaii’s northernmost main island, hosts three of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s five locales, making it an ideal destination for tropical plant aficionados. The oldest of the islands, Kauai, has had the most time to develop its biodiversity–it’s been around for at least five million years, while the “Big Island,” Hawaii, is geologically young at 500,000 years old. (This age gap also explains why only around five percent of the Big Island’s coasts are beaches versus 50 percent of Kauai’s, which have had more time for sand to build up.)
Nestled in the Lāwa`i Valley on the southern shore of Kauai, the McBryde Garden, established in 1970, was the first of the five gardens. Referred to as the “botanical ark of tropical flora,” the garden is home to the largest collection of native Hawaiian plants in the world, including flowering trees, enormous palms, and tiny, colorful orchids. Most of Hawaii’s flowers are small, because the island doesn’t have any large animals to pollinate them–the small hoary bat is the islands’ only native land mammal.
Habitat degradation and invasive species make it difficult for many native plants to survive in the wild. To help save endangered ones, NTBG field biologists rappel down the sides of slippery jagged cliffs to collect their seeds, so that they can be grown in greenhouses.
The McByrde Garden tells the ethnobotanical story of the first Hawaiians to reach the islands, who crossed the Pacific in large canoes. Since the brave seafarers didn’t know much about where they would land, with them they brought bamboo, sugar cane, coconut palm, breadfruit, and taro, a main food source. These traditional plants– used for food, medicine, tools, and shelter– are identified on small signs along the paths. Learning the history of these culturally-significant plants is important for their preservation, since indigenous people can help botanists identify and collect them in the wild. Plants that aren’t cataloged can’t be saved, which is concerning because they could hold the potential cure for modern diseases.
Further down the scenic valley between the McByrde Garden and the Pacific Ocean lies the beautifully-landscaped Allerton Garden. Once a large sugar plantation, Robert Allerton, the only son of a wealthy bank owner, purchased a beachfront tract of land to create an artfully-designed garden. With a touch of European elegance, the garden boasts an enchanted bamboo forest, bronze mermaid statues, grand fountains, and small, man-made waterfalls.
The Allertons are said to have thrown Great Gatsbyesque soirees on their manicured grounds, as the “garden rooms” were planned as an extension of their home. The stone staircases and paths that wind through the less-traversed parts of the garden are so overgrown that they seem to lead to secret outdoor rooms. A number of movie scenes have been filmed in this garden, including footage for South Pacific and Pirates of the Caribbean. The garden is home to the Moreton Bay fig trees, iconic and revered for their giant, exposed root systems, which were also featured in the dinosaur egg discovery scene of Jurassic Park.
The third garden on Kauai, Limahuli, is situated on the wetter, northern end of the island passed Hanalei Bay, home of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and near the breathtaking, rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. In Hawaiian, Limahuli means “turning hands,” a name that honors the Hawaiians that built the lava rock agricultural terraces on the property. Surrounded by verdant, peaked mountaintops, the stepped garden sits in a valley that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
Up in the hills surrounding the valley, conservationists are restoring native Hawaiian forests by ceaselessly clearing invasive plant species. The Limahuli stream, one of the last pristine waterways in Hawaii, picturesquely cuts through the garden and serves as a swimming hole for local kids that eventually flows out to the ocean. After a stroll around the grounds, visitors can rest in the garden’s Hawaiian hale, an open-walled, traditional thatched roof house made by hand from palm fans. It’s a simple but magnificent spot– the perfect botanical getaway on an island steeped in mystery.