The lone voice of horticultural reason

Gardens Of Maui

The long plane ride home from Honolulu is the cruelest way possible to end a magical two-week trip to Hawaii. Everything about the nine-hour ordeal is contrary to what one has just gotten used to. The plane is cramped as opposed to the wide-open vistas of mountains, valleys and sea; the food is dreadful compared to a daily diet of fresh seafood; I’m surrounded by tourists, versus daily excursions to favorite, unmolested haunts, plus I have to go back to work.

My last five days were spent on Maui, the Valley Isle. After Kauai, the topic of last week’s column, Maui’s botanical charms are somewhat more subdued, but glorious all the same. Travelling “upcountry” one cloudy, cool day brought me to the Kula Botanical Garden, a small (six acre) yet bountiful tropical oasis created by landscape artist Warren McCord. Strolling the well-defined, paved paths takes one through a cleverly designed landscape, full of surprises, including a charming covered bridge, tranquil carp pond and delightful aviary.

A few days later I visited The Maui Tropical Plantation, and while more of a tourist joint than Kula, I found it a worthwhile diversion. Entrance grounds leading to the large produce store, gift shop, restaurant, craft tent and sundry other sundries stands accepting Visa/Mastercard are colorful and neat as a pin. The point of it all is the 45-minute, tractor-drawn tram tour-a hayride with cushioned seats-through the 60-acre working farm. Heavier on agriculture than it is on floral landscapes, the tour is nonetheless an intriguing glimpse into the farming history and culture of the island. This would be a great family activity; younger kids would enjoy both the “hayride” aspect and the impressive coconut-husking demonstration that occurs mid-point, while the tour guide’s memorized monoloque is entertaining enough for older students.

A quick snorkeling stop on the way back to Kaanapali was my final activity before packing up and heading for the airport.

I can’t sleep on planes and I’ve already seen Flubber, so now I’m sitting here reviewing my notes and trying to decide what, from a gardening standpoint, I’ll be taking home with me from the whole experience.

For some reason I find it reassuring that spring, even in Hawaii, is still spring. Some deciduous trees, like the Kalabash, are in new leaf, having lost their old leaves during the winter. Triggering this leaf-drop is January’s bone-chilling dip of 10 degrees, to the mid-70s, which, if ludicrous, is somehow still OK; I’m at least familiar with the principle.

Once again I am in awe of the omnipotence of nature. Darn little of what grows on these islands originated here. Hawaii is in reality a sort of greatest hits of what grows in heat; most of the trees, shrubs, flowers and crop plants were brought here by the Polynesians, then the Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Australians and others who came to stake a claim, work the fields, fight a battle, hide or hang out. Far from being the “rich volcanic soil” that one tour guide credited, this pulverized red dirt I’ve been trodding for two weeks is 11% iron oxide, contains no copper, no zinc, very little of the other secondary elements plants need to grow, drains like a sieve and couldn’t spit out enough organic matter to stuff a cat. Yet over a thousand varieties of plants have not only adapted here, they thrive.

I will remember the Monkey Pod Tree, the leaves of which fold up tight in rain, to let the moisture pass through to its shallow roots below, and the Sailor’s Palm, whose fans grow exactly east to west, regardless of where it’s planted. I’ll take with me a good lesson in the beauty of contrasting textures and form, and a desire to use more shrubs in my landscape, instead of relying so heavily on flowers. I can’t wait to get back to my garden, where nature is running three weeks ahead of normal, and all you lucky gardeners are running a good two weeks ahead of me.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener