"It's a great job, doing good things, in a great community." These are the words that Kamaui Aiona uses to describe his position as Director of the Kahanu Garden in Hana, Hawai'i. In his fifth year as director, Kamaui is responsible for the 123 acre site that serves as a branch of the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) on the island of Maui. This site was started in 1972 as the second branch location for NTBG, and continues to serve as an important connection to the cultural and botanical features of Hawai'i.
Kamaui welcomed us at the airport and guided us down the road to the entrance of the Kahanu Garden. He led our group through the interior gardens and provided us with great insight and many edible plant samples during our tour. Along with its important plant collections, this branch of NTBG is also a significant site for Hawaiian culture and historical site conservation.
Kahanu Garden has a large emphasis on ethnobotany and houses the collection for the Breadfruit Institute of NTBG. Planted in orchard-style plantings, many of the breadfruit trees are the first plants that visitors see upon entering the garden's gates. With over 130 varieties of breadfruit collected from over twenty islands, the Institute is working to promote the use of these trees to fight hunger throughout the world. The uses of these trees are varied; edible fruits, wood for canoes and tools, dried flowers to repel mosquitoes, and sticky gum for chewing or catching birds, are just some of the functions. In an effort to distribute these trees world-wide, the Institute is working to put select varieties into tissue culture and has already shipped over 3,000 plants to impoverished countries.
As we walked through the gardens, Kamaui spoke easily about the cultural significance of many plants and the stories that the Hawaiian culture continues to pass down through the generations about their ancestors and their ties to the land. This may be best exemplified by the Heiau at Kahanu Garden. The Heiau, or temple, is an ancient site constructed of black lava rock. Rising from the green lawn, the terraced walls stand in stark contrast to the lush landscape that surrounded our group. While the exact function of this heiau is uncertain, its importance to the local people and their rich cultural heritage is definite. In recent history, the land was donated to NTBG in a joint agreement with the Kahanu family and the Hana Ranch to care for this ancient site. The Garden now works to maintain and preserve the area with "culturally appropriate management."
Balancing the reverence deserved of a sacred site, along with the needs of plant collections and the impact of visitors, can be a challenge. Kahanu Garden serves as a link between the local Hawaiian residents and their culture, while also serving visitors from around the world. To aid in this, local people are able to enter the gardens without charge. Plus, with little signage or advertising, the garden attracts primarily visitors who are willing to seek them out. The beautiful coastline views, great ethnobotanical collections, and rich cultural history of the Kahanu Garden definitely made it worth our efforts in seeking it out.
Thank you to all of our hosts at the National Tropical Botanical Garden who have graciously taken time out of their busy schedules to talk to us and show us around their beautiful gardens. Mahalo!