Giving sanctuary to the natives of paradise

Hawaii: On two islands, lush preserves display the true treasures of the tropics -- plant life, some of it quite rare and endangered.

Destination: The Pacific

November 11, 2001|By Kristin Jackson | Kristin Jackson,SEATTLE TIMES

Close your eyes and think of Hawaii.

Visions of white sand and warm, blue ocean probably dance through your head.

But there's a lot to Hawaii beyond its beaches. The islands are melting pots of cultural and natural history, and an easy way to learn about them is by visiting the lush lands of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

The nonprofit organization's three sprawling gardens on the island of Kauai and one garden on Maui are peaceful, parklike preserves on stretches of Hawaii's most scenic coastline. They're designed to safeguard Hawaii's rare and endangered native plants -- and display some of the islands' more common plants.

"There are so few places left like these. Our mission is to conserve, research, teach," said Kevin Clyde, chief operating officer of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which has its headquarters in Kauai.

The gardens also showcase the plants that Hawaiians traditionally used for food and medicine, contain the remains of a 500-year-old temple that's one of the largest and most spiritually significant in Hawaii, and preserve the formal garden "rooms" planted by a Midwestern millionaire who settled in Hawaii in the 1930s and created an enchanting estate.

Scientists and avid home gardeners flock to the gardens (the National Tropical Botanical Garden has a fifth garden in Florida). Yet you don't have to be a botanist or even have a green thumb to enjoy them. They are serene, emerald-green places just to stroll and, along the way, learn what you want about Hawaii's plants and people through guided or self-guided tours.

What even the most casual visitor will learn is that there is ecological trouble in paradise. Ha-waii's native plants -- valuable for their beauty, their genetic diversity, their already known and yet-to-be-discovered medicinal uses -- are under siege.

The Hawaiian islands, like the Galapagos off South America, are islands of diversity. Native species arrived gradually, via the wind, waves or birds, and they evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in Hawaii's splendid, protective isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Lacking predators, many native Hawaiian plants and animals evolved without defenses: Some birds were flightless, plants thornless.

But waves of humans, starting with the Polynesians almost 2,000 years ago and intensifying with the arrival of Europeans (English sea captain James Cook arrived in 1778), brought new plants and animals and radically altered the landscape.

Mongooses, imported to control rats in sugar cane fields, instead feasted on native birds, wiping them out. Bamboo, the miconia tree, eucalyptus and the African tulip tree, all introduced to the islands, have flourished and crowded out the smaller native trees (already reduced by logging and clearing for agricultural land). Cattle, feral pigs and goats have grazed huge stretches of land bare. Many showy tropical flowers, including the fragrant plumeria blossoms that are strung into leis, are modern introductions and overshadow the more modestly flowering native plants.

The statistics, from the National Park Service, are sobering:

* The Hawaiian Islands make up less than 0.2 percent of the U.S. land mass, but 75 percent of known plant and bird extinctions are of Hawaiian species.

* Of the federally listed rare and endangered plants and animals in the United States, 27 percent are from Hawaii.

Into the breach, fighting to conserve the native Hawaiian eco- system, come heavyweights such as the National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy and the much smaller, but equally dedicated, National Tropical Botanical Garden. Its gardens are designed for public access and education (as well as research) and are smaller-scale and more accessible than parkland or Nature Conservancy preserves.

Here's a look at the four National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Hawaii.

Allerton Garden

Nestled in a narrow Kauai valley, where a stream meanders among trees and runs into the sea at a white-sand beach, Allerton Garden is an emerald-green refuge from the condos and hotels of Poipu, a 10-minute drive away on Kauai's south shore.

For visitors, the 100-acre Allerton Garden (open only on guided tours) is one of the most entrancing of the botanical gardens. Robert Allerton, heir to a Midwest fortune, came to the then-remote valley in the 1930s. He and his son built a beachfront home and dotted the land with ornamental pools, statuary and rectangular-shaped plantings to create a half-dozen garden "rooms."

Rare, native Hawaiian plants are raised at an adjoining nursery, including the endangered alula, a bulbous plant with a crown of delicate yellow flowers.

But many Allerton Garden plants are non-native, including the spectacular Moreton Bay figs. Their undulating, above-ground roots are so otherworldly that scenes in the movie Jurassic Park were filmed in the garden, said garden foreman George Acob as he strolled by the tangle of 5-foot-tall roots.

McBryde Garden

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