So, this is what Hawaii really looked like, I think to myself, as I ascend up a sunlit valley on the north shore of Kauai, warmly enveloped by 120 species of native and indigenous plant life.
I’m wandering through Limahuli Garden’s most vital and awe-inspiring acreage, a section of its grounds designed to emulate a walk through a truly Hawaiian forest, nestled inland of Kee Beach off Kuhio Highway in Hanalei. As I examine the muted yellow bark of an ahakea, a thin forest tree once favored by Hawaiians for the gunwales of their canoes, and a blooming kokio, a red-orange hibiscus flower only found in the island’s northwest region, I ponder how Hawai‘i’s earliest ancestors must have seen and interacted with this place, prior to Western contact and invasive trees. Having flown in from the city streets of Honolulu just hours before, I surrender to a special, unplanned category of travel: Between the amau ferns and fragrant maile, I find myself time traveling.
The biodiversity hotspot
Limahuli Garden and Preserve is one of five Hawaiian gardens that comprise the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), a nonprofit whose mission is to save and share the world’s tropical plants. Visitors are happily rewarded by Limahuli in particular, thanks to its seclusion—a point wonderfully boastful for its 17 acres of public-facing gardens and 985 acres of preserve in the uplands of Haena.
“Limahuli Valley is located in the most biodiverse corner of the most biodiverse island in the biodiversity hot spot of the Hawaiian archipelago,” says Kawika Winter, director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve, who oversees the cultivation efforts here of some of the world’s rarest plant life. “You could think of it as the hot spot of the hot spot of the hot spot.”
Upon arriving, the first sight that welcomes me, naturally, are the plants themselves. Gorgeous tiers of kalo (taro) fields rise up in terraces above the visitor center in an ancient loi (natural irrigation system) that recent carbon dating of its rock walls confirm were built by Native Hawaiians about 1,000 years ago. People quietly weave their way up into the gardens, their chins tucked into handout booklets conjuring a mood reminiscent of a stately library. Upon receiving mine, I flip through its pages, instantly impressed with its thoroughness and the gardens showcased on the easy, three-quarter-mile trail. Limahuli is thematically organized into micro-gardens, one on “canoe plants” introduced by the earliest settlers, leading me into another, on the iconic flowers and fruits that became synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands during the Plantation era. The Limahuli Stream, one of the Islands’ last pristine waterways, flows gently through it.
The meaning of Limahuli
Before even stepping foot into the gardens, I notice a woman’s hands, her fingers fashioning an intricate lei of ohi‘ flowers as she sits barefoot on the floorboards of the visitor center’s lanai (patio). Her name is Lahela Correa, the visitor program manager, and she’s using plants gathered from the gardens to braid this beauty.
“Limahuli means ‘turning hands,’ but there’s more mana (spiritual power) behind that,” Correa says. “It has to do with all the work put into the walls that have been built here, the plants in the ground, the workers here in the valley, the fertile land that allows these plants to flourish so successfully in this ahupuaa (land division), one of many down the Napali.” That legacy of kuleana (responsibility) dates back generations here in Haena. In 1875, the area’s Hawaiian families formed a hui (group) of 38 shareholders to collectively purchase Haena land and protect it from an onslaught of proposed development.
“One of the great missions we teach is the culture,” Correa says. “The gardens will let visitors connect with the place and our ways here and give them greater understanding. I’ve seen people walk out with tears in their eyes as they leave the garden. Just letting this place do its mana to people is enough, it’s unbelievable.”
Into the native forest
There is something undeniably stirring about Limahuli. The resourcefulness and reverence early Hawaiians had for these plants are clear in every placard description delineating each species.
Through them, I learn firsthand about the akia, a small native shrub ingeniously used as a poison to stun tidepool fish for capture, and the lama, an endemic, sacred tree considered the embodiment of Laka, the patron goddess of hula, whose most famous altar, Ke Ahu a Laka, is situated not far from here, beneath the cliffs across Kee Bay. However, among these adulations, it’s not uncommon to see many inscribed as “endangered,” “extinct in the wild” or “Hawaiian name lost,” making this garden’s existence all the more essential, an urgent reminder of how fragile and special the ecosystem of northwestern Kauai is.
As you leave the aforementioned native forest, you’re immediately ushered into a post-contact one. I can’t ignore the contrast that occurs within a matter of strides, how much darker and starved of sunlight the garden has become due to the foreign trees towering overhead, the most dominant being the Octopus tree, originally brought to Hawai‘i for landscaping purposes before escaping into the wild. Whether deliberate or not, the physical juxtaposition between the native garden and this one takes on a figurative bend. Just a moment ago I was able to see the summit of the Makana cliff peeking majestically through its hala (pandanus) leaves and pause to imagine the ancient ohai (fire throwing) ceremonies that lit up the night skies around it. Here, there’s no room for such reflection; it’s completely obscured by the thick branches of foreign introductions that leave nothing in the way of cliffs, sky or history to see.
The little native plant that could
Just past this sobering section, there is a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel.
The Natives in Landscaping section is a sprawling terrace designed to demonstrate how to beautify establishments today with plants that truly belong in Hawaii. The most notable and resilient here is the alula, a specimen native to Kauai and Niihau. In the 1970s, the garden’s field botanists would repel down the Napali’s 2,000-foot sea cliffs to hand pollinate the then-critically-limited individuals in the wild and return six weeks later to collect their seeds for conservation programs.
The alula has since become functionally extinct in the wild, but, through the NTBG, is now featured in botanical gardens around the world and are common in landscaping (you can even buy it at your local Home Depot). Surveying its hard-to-miss appearance—resembling a giant cabbage on a sturdy baseball-bat-thick stem sprouting dainty white flowers—it’s easy to see how the alula has become an icon for the conservation movement for the NTBG. It looks like a plant ready to put up a fight.
Limahuli is overwhelming with stories like this, revealed in the plants it’s preserving. As you make your way down the final stretch of winding trail back to the visitor center, it’s impossible not to turn around and take one final look at the terraces of kalo, its gardens hidden within and Makana’s peak looming in plain view. The word makana means gift, and that’s exactly what this place feels like.
Limahuli Garden and Preserve • Open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Advanced booking required for guided tours. 5-8291 Kuhio Highway, Haena, Kauai, (808) 826-1053, ntbg.org/gardens/limahuli.php.