THE BIG ISLAND: Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden



Tucked away on the East side of the Big Island of Hawaii in Onomea Bay, just outside Hilo, hugging a bend on one of the most picturesque roads on the Big Island, is the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.


The garden is a unique tropical nature preserve and sanctuary. But more than that, it is a testament to the vision and efforts of its founders, Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse, who purchased 17 acres of land in 1978 and then proceeded to make a garden, literally inch by inch. When they brought the land it was covered in a dense, seemingly impenetrable jungle under which lay all kinds of junk: abandoned cars, machinery, appliances and trash as well as some treasures: amazing views of the Pacific, hidden waterfalls and the graves of an anonymous family of four.

The Lutkenhouses began chopping down jungle by hand with machetes because the jungle was so thick it was the only way to make space. Within six years they had reduced chaos and began the introduction of order with winding paths and groves of garden dedicated to different genus. There is a Bromeliad Hill, an Anthurium Corner, a Fern Circle and a Ginger Trail, among others.

The Lutkenhouses meant the garden to be a sanctuary for people as well as plants and on the January day I visited it lived up to their intention. It is a steep descent from the road and Visitor’s Center down into the garden. Almost immediately after getting on the boardwalk that takes you up and down into the garden you are engulfed in vegetation. The light is lovely, and intermittent. The hot Hawaiian sun so unforgiving on the beaches is in the garden is no more than a hidden guest playing hide and seek amid the foliage, making grand gestures when highlighting a hidden waterfall or spotlighting a bit of foliage. The foliage and flowers are accompanied by sounds of waterfalls, parrots and the crashing of the Pacific against the rocks. Even in January there was a lot in bloom to these North American eyes. I found myself thinking that even without blooms, the foliage, the light, the waterfalls, the ocean views and the opportunity to walk in this creation which was hewn out of neglect is well worth a visit.


But don’t let the name deceive you! Yes, the garden is in Hawaii, yes it is tropical, yes it is botanical and yes it is a garden but it is not an Hawaiian Botanical Garden. The garden houses species from all over the tropical world. I became interested in counting the number of different pine trees, until I lost count. And I couldn’t get enough of the ginger or birds of paradise, which are so exotic to my Zone 5 sensibility.


As I do whenever I travel, before I left I researched gardens to visit. There were several on the Big Island. I only had ½ a day to visit gardens because the reason I was on the Big Island was to go on a bicycle trip with my daughter. I flew over a few days ahead of my daughter and the start of the bike trip so I could savor the Big Island, get over jet lag and of course visit gardens. The Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Garden was on the other side of the island from where I was staying. I rented a car and drove several hours over to see it. From the East Coast of America, it seems like Hawaii and its sites are just that far to get to, but I am glad I made the effort. The garden is a remarkable memorial to Dan Lutkenhouse, who donated the garden and all the land for future conservation. I was also touched that there are quite a few memorial plaques honoring people who have been important to the garden, and the garden to them. Hawaiian Tropical Botanic Garden was a grand scale of a project, but I like to think that all gardens are in some small way share the vision, the effort and the loyalty that the Lutkenhouses and those who helped them achieve their dream garden.

If you find yourself on the Big Island, go see for yourself:


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