The lone voice of horticultural reason

Maui’s Aplenty With Wowie

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 the last column, Maui’s botanical charms are somewhat more subdued, but glorious all the same. Traveling”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. It’s a worthwhile destination, and two hours gives one ample time to enjoy it.

A few days later I visited The Maui Tropical Plantation, and while more of a tourist joint than Kula, I found it an equally worthwhile diversion. Entrance grounds leading to the large produce store, gift shop, restaurant, craft tent, and sundry other 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 monologue 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’m always a little hesitant to immerse myself, no pun intended, into the world of underwater plants, creatures, and the unbelievably gorgeous sites one sees snorkeling. It’s literally a whole ‘nother world to learn and write about. Design principles espoused by nature that exist below the waterline are definitely something for me to come back to someday, however. Everything beneath me as I snorkeled was garden, after all. I can’t sleep on planes and I’ve already seen Big Mama’s House, 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 entire Hawaiian experience.

For some reason I find it reassuring that early spring, even in Hawaii, is still spring. Some deciduous trees, like the Kalabash, are budding and will soon grow new leaves, having lost their old leaves earlier this winter. Triggering this leaf-drop is December/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 precious 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 home, where the grocery bags of mail collected by the neighbor kid in my absence no doubt include at least some of my seed packet orders. Keep active and February becomes a blur, the way it should be. March is for growing plants under lights. April is a breeze, and May will be here before we know it.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener