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Lyon Arboretum longtime mission to protect Hawaii plant life, educate visitors endures

A view of a small portion of the arboretum, against the backdrop of the Koolau mountain range.

Tucked in the back of lush Manoa Valley on Oahu is the only university-run botanical garden in the United States located in a tropical rainforest.

The Lyon Arboretum, founded in 1918, occupies 200 acres of the Manoa watershed at the base of the majestic Koolau mountain range. A botanical garden and research facility, the arboretum—named after botanist Harold L. Lyon, who planted more than 2,000 tree species on its acreage—focuses on conserving, curating and studying plants in their habitats and sharing them with the community through educational outreach and programming.

If you're looking to spend some time exploring unfettered Hawaii nature, but want to stay near Honolulu, the Lyon Arboretum is for you.

The Lyon Arboretum's main trail is a leisurely climb.

Walking around the arboretum—found in one of the most easily accessible tropical rain forests on the island—you get an immediate sense of place: greenhouses for cultivating plants, cottages where classes are held, hiking trails that end at the photo-ready Aihualama Falls. Lyon Arboretum is all about nurturing nature.

In an area where the average rainfall is 165 inches a year, Lyon Arboretum is able to cultivate an enormous diversity of plants, from heliconia to ginger to the largest palm collection found in any botanical garden. With a world-class collection of more than 5,000 tropical plant species, the arboretum works to preserve and restore Hawaii’s tropical forests.

Its mission is critical to Hawaii’s native plant population. About 90 percent of the 1,400 plant species native to the Hawaiian Islands are found nowhere else in the world, says Nelli Sugii, director of the Hawaiian Rare Plan Program for Lyon Arboretum.

The main trail's end point is Aihualama Falls.

“Hawaii has the dubious distinction of being the endangered species capital and invasive species capital of the U.S.,” says Christopher Dunn, director of Lyon Arboretum. “We have more endangered plants per square mile than anywhere in the US. And almost one-half of all the endangered plants in the U.S. are in Hawaii, but receive less than 5 percent of the total federal funds allocated to species recovery. So the struggle to save our endangered flora is an immense one and will take the efforts of many organizations and individuals to make a difference.”

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