The lone voice of horticultural reason

Travels With The Renegade Gardener

KAUAI, HAWAII—For a Minnesota gardener, touring public and private gardens in Hawaii is akin to spending time at a French cooking school as part of one’s training to become a hamburger flipper at McDonald’s. It’s interesting, it smells good, and after a while a little of it even begins to make sense, but one can’t escape the inevitable conclusion that not much of this indoctrination is going to relate to the task back home.

Just about every tree, shrub, stick and blade that’s attached to the ground blooms here, of course, usually to enormous extent. Compared to Minnesota, the plants on these islands are mutant monsters, overdosed on a ten thousand-year-old tropical steroid of consistent rains and year-round heat.

From a distance the African Tulip Tree could pass as a mid-sized maple that was pruned once, badly, as a sapling, if not for the hundreds of gigantic, bright orange, tulip-like flowers cascading throughout the crown. One wonders if the offspring of a red oak taken from a Minnesota forest and somehow transplanted to these tropical climes wouldn’t establish their own dense, astonishing blooms, given a few hundred generations.

A lot of the specimens found growing in the wild here in Hawaii are what we Minnesotans refer to as houseplants. My knowledge of houseplants is poor, due to cats and a lack of sunny windows in my house. Still, I’ve strolled past a gorgeous, $75 tropical houseplant for sale at a fancy nursery and noticed it possessed a certain flair. On this island, when you stumble across the same plant growing as a weed between garbage cans lining a brief alley of an impoverished inland town, one begins to understand what’s meant by beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

One highlight of my trip so far has been a half-day shuttle and hiking tour of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens here on Kauai. Established for the preservation of tropical plants from around the world, it includes the famed Allerton gardens, designed and funded in 1938 by Chicago philanthropist Robert Allerton. A failed painter, Allerton took to travelling the world, soon developing a passion for gardening and a soft spot for Hawaii, a frequent rest stop during his trips to the Orient.

His garden philosophy was based on what he called the “three essentials:” contrast of textures, the sound of wind, and the sound of moving water. (You see, adding the element of water to the garden, and the soothing benefits of the sound of a waterfall that are being touted by current gardening magazines as the hot new style for American gardens, is not such a new concept after all.) Surprisingly, use and contrast of color didn’t make Allerton’s list, color being a given, I suppose, when one’s canvas is 100 prime acres of Kauai coastal and mesic forest, complete with the requisite, horseshoe-shaped white sand beach, backed by a crystal blue freshwater lagoon and 70-foot cliffs.

Nevertheless, and true to his vision, Allerton’s lengthy series of both formally and subtly defined garden rooms is intriguingly stark. The man knew a good sculpture when he saw one, but his placement is sparse, each sculpture’s role as focal point slowly but inevitably overwhelmed by the hypnotic variations in contrasting textures created by the trunks, branches, leaves and ultimate shapes of the surrounding shrubs and trees. One’s perception of the rooms changes, without anything moving, while you watch.

All 100 acres of Allerton’s creation, plus the additional 152 acres that comprise the tropical plant preserve, have been restored following the horrific hurricane of 1992. The four formal water features dispersed throughout his gardens survived intact. Constructed primarily of poured concrete, imported granite, marble and slate, they hint at Allerton’s fondness for Italy and influences from the Italian school of landscape design. Not only does one hear water, but each fountain, stream, viaduct, and spring-fed reflecting pool alters the water’s volume, tone and pitch.

Allerton performs the same trick with the wind, by changing the height above and proximity from the coast throughout the total garden layout. The temple-like, almost foreboding Chinese bamboo garden lies low in a valley, near but not visible to the beach, cliffs buffering the noise of the ocean and wind. Massive clumps of yellow, dark green, and variegated bamboo shoot up 25 and 30 feet around you, arching slightly to form a canopy high overhead. Edged by a wide, slow-moving stretch of stream (that eventually winds to the lagoon), it’s as serene a spot as I’ve ever stood on Earth.

Only in the next and final area, the informal cutting garden, does Allerton unleash the garish demons of Hawaiian floral color. Yellow, pink and peach plumeria, five varieties of blood-red heliconia, and the giant, alien-like blooms of protea stab at you from all directions and round every turn, boggling the senses. We’ve been set up, the serenity of Allerton’s bamboo forest serving as the holy lull before the cutting garden’s devilish storm.

Good stuff, and a lovely afternoon’s diversion.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener