Limahuli Garden is a National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) in Ha‘ena, Kaua‘i. The garden walk is organized around various themes: Canoe Garden, Plantations Era Garden, Native Forest Walk, and Invasive Forest Walk. The guidebook you receive with your admission ticket is a real jewel of a resource, not only does it give you all sorts of botanical information, it provides a wealth of historical and cultural information as well. As one travel guidebook said… “The Limahuli Garden booklet alone is worth the price of admission.” All the information about the plants I saw on my visit to Limahuli Garden is gleaned from the visitor’s booklet.
You begin your walk at the ‘Ula or Breadfruit Tree (Artocarpus altilis). I had never seen breadfruit before and had only vaguely heard of it. I’ve learned that ‘ula is a staple food in much of the Polynesian world. It arrived on Hawaii in the canoes of early explorers.
Breadfruit can be eaten at all stages of ripeness; however, it is more nutritious when it is unripe. Its flavor and sweetness varies depending upon its ripeness. Today it is often used as a substitute for potatoes and can be steamed, baked or fried. ‘Ula is considered to have enormous potential as a nutritious food. The NTBG is working with the Breadfruit Institute in hopes of using this easy to grow plant to end much of the worlds hunger.
The whole ‘ula tree was useful in many ways to the early Hawaiians. The gummy sap served as canoe calk, the leaves and leaf sheaths served as fine sandpaper. ‘Ula wood was carved into musical instruments, surfboards and small canoes.
The terraced rock walls are part of an important archaeological site at the garden. Recent carbon dating confirms that these walls are about 700 years old. Known in Hawaiian as lo‘i kalo, these terraces are part of an agricultural system developed by the Hawaiians to grow Kalo or Taro (Colocasia esculenta) their most important crop.
Every part of the kalo plant is edible when cooked. Cooked kalo corms can be eaten like potatoes, or pounded and mixed with water to make poi. The leaves are known as Lu‘au and have a taste similar to spinach. It is believed that there are approximately 300 distinct varieties of kalo.
Hala or Screwpine (Pandanus tectorius). In prehistoric times, plants like the screwpine were widely distributed. Fossils have been found in Siberia, Madagascar, Australia, and even England. Because the screwpine family is so widespread, botanists have long wondered whether the Hala was a Hawaiian native or a Polynesian import. This question was answered in 1993 when a huge basaltic rock fell from a cliff near Hanalei Bay and split in half, revealing a preserved hala branch dating back 1.4 million years, definitely before human contact. This native plant’s leaves were used to weave mats, pillows, baskets, canoe sails, interior walls, and flooring.
Male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The female tree bears a fruit that visitors to Hawaii often confuse with the pineapple, hence its nickname “tourist pineapple.”
Makana is a mountain that towers above the Limahuli Valley. It is frequently referred to as Bai Hai, a name popularized by the movie South Pacific. Makana in Hawaiian means gift, this provides some insight as to the importance of this mountain to the ancient Hawaiians.
Makana is famous for ‘oahi (which means projection fire), a fire throwing ceremony that was performed there in ancient times. The ‘oahi was a celebration of very special occasions: the graduation of students from the famous hula schools at Ke‘e or the visit of an ali‘i, or king. On the day of the ceremony skilled fire throwers would climb the steep cliffs to the very top of Makana with light, dry logs of papala or hau. When night fell, they set the logs afire and hurled them out over the ocean. Updrafts created by the trade wind hitting the sheer cliff of the mountain, keep the firebrands aloft, soaring as far as a mile out to sea. I can only imagine the show that would be... a night sky filled with sparks and fiery torches tracing arcs of light from Makana to the sea.
Alula or Campnulaceae (Brighamia insignis), native to Kaua’I and Ni’ihau. This unusual looking plant was once thought to be extinct in the wild, however the propagation efforts by NTBG’s botanists has been so successful that this plant is now sold in nurseries. These propagated plants allow botanists to study and preserve the alula and to eventually reintroduce them into protected wild habitats.