Kauai garden takes you on a trip through time
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
Limahuli Garden on Kaua'i's north shore takes visitors back through time to a different culture and a living community, a trek that won it this year's top "Keep it Hawai'i" recognition award from the Hawai'i Tourism Authority.
In Hawaiian, the name Limahuli means "turning hands," which recognizes the ancient Hawaiians who built agricultural terraces from lava rock and planted kalo as a vital food crop.
The garden brings together the history of the early Hawaiian settlers, restored lo'i or taro terraces, a collection of rare and endangered native Hawaiian plants, and the spirit of community all incorporated in tours that attract residents and visitors.
Kawika Winter, director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve, is an ethnobotanist from Honolulu who took the Kaua'i job in May 2005.
"We have 39 species that are federally listed as either threatened or endangered," Winter said. "Our goal here is to educate people about the host culture of the area and the ecology and the things that threaten it and the things that are working to preserve it."
Winter, who is fluent in Hawaiian, said about 60 to 80 people visit Limahuli on an average day, and closer to a hundred on a busy day. This year, they are projecting just fewer than 18,000 visitors — an 11 percent increase over last year.
He explained that the garden grew from a private operation in the late 1960s. "The owner of the valley was this very visionary lady — her name was Juliet Rice Wichman — and she had a vision at that time of preserving not only the host culture but the ecology of this area," he said.
She gave the front 20 acres to the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden. Later, her grandson, Charles R. "Chipper" Wichman Jr., signed the roughly 1,000 acres in preserve over, too, Winter said.
DID YOU KNOW ...
Even kama'aina learn from the garden. "Take our lei plants, for example — you've got pikake and pakalana and puakenikeni," Winter said. "None of those are native plants; those are all relatively new arrivals to the Hawaiian Islands in the last 150 years or so that have been incorporated into the culture."
He said the holistic approach is crucial to a larger understanding "so people recognize that the host culture here is alive and evolving and not something that's dead and stuck in the past."
And the garden shares philosophy of the ahupua'a, where people from the mountain to the sea were mindful of how each of their actions affected the others who lived off the shared land.
"We look at this as one big picture," Winter said. Looking back to the ancient system can help find viable solutions to modern issues such as striving for a community better able to sustain itself.
And while plants might sound bookish to outsiders, Winter offers some tales of plant adventures.
Take the story of native plant called alula, cabbage on a stick, or Brighamia insigni, that might be familiar to those who remember a National Geographic IMAX movie from the late 1980s.
"It involved our field botanists rappelling down the 200-foot sea cliffs of the Na Pali Coast and going along and hand-pollinating these flowers with paint brushes," Winter said. The botanists returned to swing on the ropes again to collect the seeds and planted them in the garden and conservation collection to preserve the rare plant.
Another plant, Delissea rhytidosperma, also was preserved by the garden. It had been discovered growing wild in a nearby valley until a herd of goats found it and ate it all. Now it can survive for future generations.
To win this year's award, the garden was honored for "tireless efforts in supporting the Hawaiian culture and protecting and developing Hawaiian knowledge by preservation of natural resources through research, hands-on work and educational opportunities," said HTA president Rex Johnson.
The Keep It Hawai'i program is designed as a way to have the state's leading private industry recognize and thank those in the community who perpetuate the Hawaiian culture through programs for both residents and visitors.
"Our host culture is what makes our islands not just special, but truly unique," Johnson said.
Lahela Chandler Correa serves as the garden's visitor program manager. She came to the garden a decade ago after working in a more traditional tourism job.
Correa, 39, worked in housekeeping for the nearby Hanalei Colony Resort. The resort then paid one of its staff members to work one day a week at the garden to help out. Eventually, the garden hired her away from the resort.
Now, she can't imagine being anywhere else. "I'm originally from Wainiha, six minutes away from here," Correa said in a telephone interview. "My family is from here. We come from a fishing family and Hawaiian medicine and canoeing and taro farming."
She loves the environment, working where her ancestors walked and farmed the land. "It's a privilege. Every day I learn here." She hadn't realized the huge impact that alien plants can have on native environments.
Now, she's impressed by what visitors take away from the garden, how they appreciate the culture, the native plants, and the land, or 'aina. "They don't just come in to look — like it's Disneyland or something like that; it's more than that — it's a respected place."
Winter said the garden saves the notes and letters it gets from visitors. He pulled some out of the files. They included notes of appreciation from a group of the younger members of the Hokule'a voyaging canoe's crew praising the garden's staff for their inspiration and knowledge.
Another letter came from retired Air Force Maj. Jeff McManus, a Makakilo native now living in California. He described meeting Correa on two visits, the first eight years ago when "I discovered plants I had seen as a boy, but never knew what they were and what the Hawaiians used them for" and learning so much because Correa knew the island so well — her knowledge goes beyond books.
McManus went on to describe a later visit with his wife, children and mother who was born on Kaua'i but had been away for more than 60 years. Correa was there again, he said. "She welcomed us with such a warm 'aloha spirit' again, just like she has welcomed thousands of visitors through the years."
Correa appreciates those who come to the garden and learn. But the visitors who often capture her interest now are the skeptics. "They grumble about the $15," she said. But after seeing and learning, they usually have a different attitude. That's my reward when I hear people come out and say 'wow, this is an incredible place,' " she said. "They're humbled."
She said the garden offers something to all who walk there. "To share my knowledge with others, that's the greatest gift I can give someone."
Reach Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com.