Kauai's Limahuli Gardens

Visited 10 August 2005  

Exploiting its setting where mountain meets sea, the Limahuli Garden and Preserve on Kauai's north shore displays and defends the island's native and newcomer flora.   While Hawaii boasts many colorful gardens bristling with colorful flowers, Limahuli is more subdued but  more professorial, showing visitors to its 17-acre garden what plants Hawaiians imported and exploited to live in this tropical paradise.   Beyond what tourists see rise nearly 1000 acres of preserve where Kauai's native species are restored -- sometimes with heroic, if not unnatural, acts.



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Above rises the Makana Mountain which edges a river valley spanning several ecosystems from mountaintop (at 3,300 feet) to wet-side Pacific shore.   If you're a film buff, you may recognize this wooded mountainside as the backdrop for Bali Ha'i.  The north shore of Kauai is filled with movie locations; nearby is Limahuli  Beach, the scene for South Pacific's rendition of "I'm in love with a wonderful guy."  (Apparently they had them in those days of the Greatest Generation.) 

A creek runs through it, creating the Limahuli valley.  This Limahuli Creek is a very well-studied rivulet thanks to a joint monitoring efforts between the garden and the University of Hawaii.  Long before the academics got interested (and before the natives even thought about reading), this was an agricultural area where the descendents of Polynesians terraced their taro and irrigated it from the Limahuli stream. 

Before the Westerners, these islands were divided into pie wedges corresponding to river valleys in an economic and political entity called an ahupua'a.  Ahupua'as allowed for efficient and cooperative use of scarce resources such as the fresh water stream.   Fishermen could trade their protein for the midlander's carbohydrates (taro and breadfruit).  You've heard of the names of several ahupua'as such as Honolulu and Waikiki. 

Here's a picture of a typical lava-stoned terrace with the lush mountains rising above it (left) and (right) a close-up of a major crop: 

The terrace walls (called lo'i kalo) are about 700 years old and show how the Hawaiians cultivated their most important crop: Taro/Kalo (shown at upper right and in the foreground of the photo on the left).  The Limahuli stream descends through spectacular water falls (unfortunately not open to tourists) into the Pacific.  Along the way, ancient farmers diverted about half its water through a series of canals and terraces.  As everywhere in Hawaii, fresh water was a scarce resource, even here near the rainiest spot on the planet.  

Kalo (today called Taro) was the rice of the Hawaiian diet and all of the plant was eaten in one form or another.  Roots could be eaten like potatoes including mashing them into poi.  Leaves cook up like spinach.  The Eskimos' many words for snow pale in comparison to the 300 different varieties of kalo named by the Hawaiians.  So central is its importance that the Hawaiian word for family stems from this plant).  

Limahuli Stream

1000 points of light
Today the Limahuli area is a quiet garden.  In the past, it was one of only 2 places in all Hawaii to have firework displays.  Natives would climb to the top of Makana Mountain and throw special lighted wood into the updraft of sweeping trade winds.  These torches would slowly float down as far as a mile out to sea.  Couples in Canoes would attempt to catch one of them as a sign of their love.
 Click here for an eyewitness description.

The "nearly pristine" Limahuli Stream looks quite peaceful here, but it is not always so serene.  Above the 17-acre garden rises the Limahuli Preserve fanning out as the stream descends from its source 3300' above.   The creek contains many critters found only in Hawaii.  

Acquired in 1994, the preserve is separated into upper and lower portions by the nearly 800' waterfall guarded by ridges 2000' tall and so steep that personnel rappel down them to pollinate endangered Kauai species.

Above the Limahuli waterfall, 400 acres extend from a lowland rain forest at the 1600' level to a 3300' level mountain rain forest reachable only by helicopter.   Since feral cows don't usually fly helicopters, this area was spared the grazing damage that the lower portions of the preserve and garden suffered in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  As such, it was a pristine Kauai'an ecosystem until two hurricanes (1982 and 1992) ripped out much vegetation and dumped opportunistic weed seeds into the area.  Feral pigs have also expanded their population in the last 20 years.   How they got helicopters is one of the great mysteries of this region.  (Don't say intelligent design but it may have been a congressional pork barrel -- they are not the same thing).

The 600 acres in the preserve below Limahuli Falls was decimated by feral cattle but are responding to aggressive restoration programs by garden staff.

The Many Voyages of Breadfruit


Categorize Hawaiian Flora into three groups: Natives, Canoe Plants, and Moderns.
  • About 700 species (including animals) literally blew into the desolate lava Islands after they were formed starting with Kauai about 6 millions years.  These evolved into 6,000 Native species by 200 BC when the Polynesians arrived.
  • Canoe Plants refers to the 25+ species of plants brought by the Polynesians when they colonized the Hawaiian Archipelago.  Typically these were cuttings of plant useful in a number of ways (e.g., food, medicine, dyes). 
  • Modern plants were brought by Westerners to "solve" specific problems such as covering land made bare by excessive foraging.  Often these created a new set of problems.  It's not nice to mess with Mother Nature.

The Limahuli Preserves the natives, displays and explains the canoe plants, and fights the moderns which left unchecked could wipe out everything else.  It's a jungle out there.


The garden well displays and documents (through both signage and a brochure) the plants of Hawaiian daily life.  Our page of overflow pictures shows many of these and can be accessed by clicking here.   If you missed any of it, an excellent web page provides a highly informative virtual tour.  While we won't reproduce the whole tour here, let's talk about breadfruit (pictured at left), the first plant presented on the tour and well documented on the site's web page:

Signs here tell us that Hawaiians used breadfruit for food, sandpaper, canoe caulk, and surfboards.  But the web page tells us much more: how the Polynesians brought 27 different species of useful plants to Hawaii, propagating some of them (like the breadfruit that they call 'ulu) to the point where they no longer reproduce from seed.   It reminds us that breadfruit caused the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty as Captain Bligh attempted to export it to the Caribbean Islands as cheap food for the slaves there.  Unfortunately the breadfruit used up so much of the ship's water supply that the thirsty crew revolted.  Bligh was on his way from Tahiti (not Hawaii), but knew the islands well as he was shipmaster to Captain Cook on Cook's disastrous final voyage to what he called the Sandwich (but we call the Hawaiian) Islands.

Other signs provide similar information on the various plants that made up daily life such as the water-repellant ki leaves woven into raincoats, the Ho-'i'o ferns served up in tasty shrimp dishes, and the Wauke plant whose inner bark is pounded into cloth.  The garden is eclectic in that it tolerates and documents not just the indigenous flora, but also that introduced by the Polynesians and even modern interlopers that threaten to strangle out other vegetation with their weeds.  See more of these on our overflow picture page by clicking here.  

But besides providing education in its 17-acre garden, this site does much more.  It is part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, a 40-year-old  non-profit, congressionally charted institution which includes 4 gardens and 3 nature preserves on the Hawaiian islands (plus 1 garden in Florida).  The Limahuli gardens are part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens (NTBG), a 40-year-old  non-profit, congressionally charted institution with locations in the Hawaiian islands and at the southern tip of Florida.  Limahuli contains more than half of the NTBG's total 1800 acres.  While tourists see the garden, the much larger preserve (nearly 1000 acres) is off limits. Not off limits is their web site,  among the best I've seen for gardens. 

The preserve serves the National Tropical Botanical Garden's mission to conserve the tropical plants of the Limahuli ecosystems.  This sometimes requires personnel to rappel down cliffs to fertilize rare plants.  The preserve itself must be spectacular as it contains waterfalls of the Limahuli Creek reputed to be 1000' high.  

Archeological Site

Besides the terraces used for farming, other areas are marked as archeological sites, but there is not much to them other than a pile of stones such as seen below:


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The American Horticultural Society in 1977 named Limahuli Garden as “Best Natural Botanical Garden” for converting this old cattle stomping grounds into an area that demonstrates “best sound environmental practices of water, soil, and rare native plant conservation in an overall garden design."  When we visited, the garden walks the talk:  The visitor center is energy self-sufficient thanks to sun power and the rest rooms are the first composting toilets allowed for commercial use in Hawaii.  A gorgeous approach for a gorgeous garden.   Can't Gore  just do the same, or are the rest of us carbon-neutral new fools?   When a politician says he gets his power from wind, expect hot air.


For an index of all of our Hawaii pictures, click here
Created on  29 March 2007

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