Hawaiian islands transformed over time by a queen
In the valley between the Pacific Ocean and the Lawa’i Valley cliffs, on Kauai’s south shore, lies a garden treasure. This magical place is an ethereal jungle, carefully designed to be what one man’s dreams were made of.
While most of the U.S. mainland gardens sleep under a blanket of frozen winter, the National Tropical Botanical Gardens’ headquarters in Hawaii remain lush and alive. Visitors to these gardens experience an incredible landscape used over the years in the film industry, to entertain the jet set and to showcase the island’s beauty.
The National Tropical Botanical Garden includes the Allerton Garden and the McBryde Garden, which were transformed over time by a queen, a wealthy magnate and an artist with an eye for architecture and beauty.
Hawaii’s Queen Emma began shaping the garden in the late 1800s, and the lily that bears her name still thrives here among the hedges of bougainvillea she introduced. A sugarcane magnate, Alexander McBryde, acquired the property from her estate and later on, Illinois businessman Robert Allerton purchased the 80-acre property for a mere $50,000 in 1937. He spent the next 25 years transforming the jungle and cane fields into a magnificent garden with a series of “rooms” with themes, European-inspired sculpture and water features.
The garden, one of only three National Tropical Botanical Gardens in the United States, was created by an act of Congress in 1964, but receives no federal funding. The livelihood of the garden depends on funding from visitors, grants and donations.
The grounds are a recording of history and an edible landscape. Visitors are invited to pick and sample the Surinam cherry — a bright, glossy reddish-orange lantern bursting with juiciness and an aftertaste of juniper — brought here from South America to thrive on the island. A carefully planted but now-feral orchard in the middle of the garden still bears citrus, the tree boughs literally bowed to the ground with the burden of their bounty.
The garden employs six full-time gardeners, not enough to keep the grounds perfectly manicured. Being a gardener at the Allerton Gardens isn’t like other places — there’s no dead-heading, no scrubbing lichen off statues, no pruning or sculpting of hedges. This place is au natural and Allerton designed it that way.
Century-old monkeypod trees shelter fields of sharp-pointed mother-in-law tongue plants. Sweet-smelling Angel’s Trumpet flowers dangle, luring visitors with their poisonous peach blossoms. And the garden features rare native plants such as the white hibiscus and thick stands of torch-like awapuhi, Hawaiian ginger, as well as a non-native, impressive bamboo forest.
The gardens are also full of wildlife — shrimp lurking in the slow-flowing creeks and wedge-tailed shearwater, with its eerie, almost mocking cry like an abandoned baby. And the sound of babbling water is heard almost everywhere — it’s clear Allerton found water soothing and meditative. He even had a mermaid fountain designed to ebb and flow to the rate of a heartbeat, which has an extremely calming effect.
Perhaps the most popular reason for coming to these gardens is its Hollywood appeal. Many of the tour guides have been extras in movies filmed in and around the gardens, such as “Outbreak” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Gilligan, the Skipper, Maryann and the Professor filmed the pilot for “Gilligan’s Island” here. Despite all the famous actors and actresses who have come here over the years, the biggest stars of the garden are, without argument, the monstrous, prehistoric-looking Moreton Bay fig trees, featured in “Jurassic Park.” People come from all over the world to take photos next to these massive trees, with their protruding roots that cradled raptor eggs in the movie.
Allerton imported these Ficus macrophylla from Australia, transporting the seedlings in beer cans on a flight more than 70 years ago, long before international agricultural inspections were required.
No matter your reason for visiting the National Tropical Botanical Gardens in Kauai, it’s an unforgettable experience full of wonder and beauty. Just don’t forget your camera, some bug repellent and good walking shoes. They’ll make Allerton’s dream world that much better.
For information on visiting the gardens, go to ntbg.org.