Maui nursery making Kaho'olawe green
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Anna Palomino turned an appreciation for indigenous and endemic plants into a small business 16 years ago and is now providing foliage for the once barren landscape of Kaho'olawe.
Ho'olawa Farms was relatively unknown in 1999 when it made the low bid to provide indigenous and endemic plants for the 45-square-mile Kaho'olawe.
The contract now generates $50,000 to $80,000 per year in sales for the nursery. Ho'olawa Farms has provided 150,000 native plants — including grasses, shrubs and trees — to Kaho'olawe.
They have provided a'ali'i, kawelu, kamanomano, naio, koa, 'ohi'a, kulu'i and hao to the island.
Palomino and her business partner, Don Bowker, propagate and grow the plants for Kaho'olawe in a segregated area of their 2-acre nursery, which sits about 20 minutes outside Kahului off Maui's Hana Highway.
The plants are then loaded onto helicopters each week for flights to Kaho'olawe to be planted by volunteers.
Ho'olawa Farms sends only plants that are healthy and free of pests, said Paul Higashino, restoration manager for the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission.
"They've been great, just great," Higashino said. "They deliver on time. The plants are all hardy, ready to go. They're free of alien species. There's no weeds in the pots. They're not covered with bugs."
Although officials hope to start their own nursery next year on Kaho'olawe, the commission will probably use cuttings from Ho'olawa Farms and will still need the nursery to provide about half of its supply of plants, Higashino said.
"You go to the island and you see the vastness of the area that has been devastated and destroyed," Higashino said. "There's thousands of more acres to plant."
The commission buys products from other Maui-based small businesses for things such as irrigation and lawn equipment and all-terrain vehicles — but not with the same regularity as it deals with Ho'olawa Farms.
"We work with Anna the most," Higashino said. "They're a great company to work with."
Winning the Kaho'olawe contract was more than just a business deal for Palomino, who wanted to help in the restoration of the island after decades of Navy bombing and devastation by foraging animals.
"We felt we were growing plants to get the island healed," she said. "We were grateful just to have a hand in producing plants for that effort. Of all the work we do with native plants, restoration is the most satisfying."
Palomino had mostly been interested in ornamental horticulture when botanist and native-plant proponent Rene Sylva began taking her on hikes on Maui.
"He showed me how beautiful these areas are that we walked into," Palomino said. "In those days, you didn't have to walk as far to get into a native forest. They seemed to represent the true Hawai'i. Many of them are endangered but they're part of what makes Hawai'i so special. I learned to appreciate the plants and the special place they came from."
Palomino learned how to propagate native species in her home garden in Ho'olawa and begin dreaming of starting her own nursery, focusing on indigenous and endemic species.
"For many years, we didn't make anything," Palomino said. "We mostly just grew for ourselves."
While Palomino worked on a mushroom farm and took care of plants at a Maui hotel, she began selling to a handful of "what I would call native plant nuts," Palomino said. "They were mostly people who wanted them for their homes."
About 10 years ago, landscape contractors began turning to Ho'olawa Farms for species like 'ilima papa and coastal nehe to use as ground cover for beachfront developments.
Back then "die-hard customers" — as Palomino calls them — had to drive two miles down a dirt road to get to her nursery. When it rained, which was often, they would have to use vehicles with four-wheel drive.
The nursery has since moved to a more accessible site filled with more than 100 species.
It has provided the state Department of Transportation with more than 700,000 units of 'aki'aki grass, ma'o naio and Achyranthes splendens along a stretch of the Mokulele Highway from Kahului to Kihei.
And Ho'olawa Farms produces another 3,000 native plants per year for a restoration project on 'Ulupalakua Ranch lands involving the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Maui Restoration Group and others, said Art Medeiros, a research scientist with the Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, who also leads the volunteer-based Maui Restoration Group.
"I've known Anna for probably over 15 years and we started as just being fellow nerdy bota-nists," Medeiros said. " ... I definitely think she has a passionate heart. There may be one or two people in Hawai'i who can match Anna, but nobody exceeds her."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.