Tropical Gardening: Preserving old Hawaii with Amy Greenwell garden

  • Courtesy of VOLTAIRE MOISE These loulu, Pritchardia maideniana, at Punaluu are one of 24 species endemic to Hawaii. Because of rats and pigs, these once abundant palms are almost extinct.

Even though we are still dealing with COVID-19 isolation, this year is definitely giving us hope for a better future. We still have to wear protective masks and keep a safe distance from crowds, but there are many reasons to be optimistic.

It is a great time to do something fun. And what better way to get out of the house and experience nature than to visit public parks and gardens.


We are blessed with natural beauty wherever we look around our island, but it is easy to take it for granted. We often forget the efforts of folks today and years gone by. A visit to Lilioukalani Gardens in Hilo reminds us of all the work that KT Cannon-Eger and many volunteers put forth to keep this valuable community resource alive.

There are many other examples of horticultural contributions to enjoy such as the palm, tropical Rhododendron and bamboo gardens at Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens.

Then there is a unique educational garden almost lost to our island community until recently. It is one that represents Hawaii agriculture before Captain Cook’s arrival. That method of farming is alive today because many kupuna work to keep it so.

A fine example of these efforts is the Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in South Kona. Thanks to Amy Greenwell, Bishop Museum, Peter Van Dyke and a host of island volunteers, this ethnobotanical garden was able to teach these farming techniques to thousands of schoolchildren and adults through the years. Not only was sustainable Hawaii agriculture taught, but the cultural and spiritual components were incorporated as well.

This almost came to an abrupt end when Bishop Museum announced it was selling this valuable educational farm center. The good news, according to Janet Britt, is that the Friends of Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden received a major financial grant to help save this unique resource. More money, however, must still be raised to succeed.

According to Friends group president Maile Melrose, there is now a drive to save this special place. For more information about how you can help, call Maile at 323-3378.

The garden is open to visit on Sundays. Jim Miller gives educational tours at 10:30 a.m.

For sources of native plants such as loulu palms and Polynesian introductions, you can call Peter at 323-3318.

The forests in those earliest days of human activity in Hawaii were very different than when Captain Cook arrived. We have no real clear records of that time, but it is obvious humans have had a tremendous impact on the species that evolved on the many isolated islands of Pacifica. Today, erosion is a big problem on most high islands because of damage being done by feral grazing animals such as goats. The rising ocean is swallowing the low atolls that have been the homes of islanders for thousands of years.

The moral of the story is that we better learn to adapt to change but keep as many of the good qualities of past sustainable systems that we can. We can do this by supporting education using the vision of Amy Greenwell and the Hawaiian community.

As individuals, we can then be conservationists right in our own gardens. We can grow native and canoe plants. We can also plant species to encourage desirable wildlife such as our native birds. We have a wide variety of plants, native and introduced.


Therefore, we have a tremendous array for beauty and food sources. There are a number of trees that can help accomplish this purpose. Among the best are natives such as the loulu palms, ohia, koa, wiliwili, hoawa, alahee and alalii. Other plants, such as the beach and mountain naupaka, are attractive and make good ornamentals for a garden.

So when you find yourself mourning the loss of days gone by, remember our today will hopefully be remembered as the good old days to future islanders. We need to think about how we can make sure the future will include the best part of the past.