Whenever I’m on the Kona Coast of Hawaiʻi Island, I can never resist stopping at Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden to see what what native plants might be in bloom.

The garden is located on Highway 11 in Captain Cook and is across the street from historic Manago Hotel.  The garden focuses on native and Polynesian-introduced plants and their uses by Hawaiians prior to Western contact.

The garden’s original benefactor, Amy Greenwell, wanted to recreate what a Hawaiian farming plot looked liked prior to Captain Cook’s arrival in 1779 before the flood of introduced plants arrived in Hawaiʻi.

Stones piled in a heap — an ʻahupuaʻa marker — is a prominent feature as you enter the garden.  Much of  the garden is planted with “canoe plants” — plants brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians on their voyaging canoes such as kalo (taro), maia (bananas), wauke (paper mulberry), ʻolena (tumeric), etc.

Kalo (Colocasia esculenta) was an important staple.  The Hawaiians developed over 300 different varieties of kalo but only about 90 still remain today.  Most of the kalo I see on Oʻahu are the wetland varieties so I was pleased to see dryland varieties for a change.

The roots of ʻawa or kava (Piper methysticum) were brewed into an intoxicating drink used in rituals that opened communication with the mystical world.  It was also used as a sedative for its calming effect.

Maiʻa or bananas (Musa paradisiaca) were highly prized by the Hawaiians.   The garden has a collection of rare and endangered kokio or hibiscus plants — like the hibiscus shrub in the foreground of this photo with yellow flowers.

Maʻo hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei) is extremely rare in the wild and is endangered.   Their flowers are 4-5 inches across and are a vibrant yellow color.

One of the rarest native hibiscus trees is the endangered Kauaʻi kokio (Kokia kauauensis) which produces orange-red flowers whose twisted petals fold backwards.  The plant was reduced to a single specimen on Kauaʻi but thanks to horticulturalists who propagated the tree and planted them in botanical gardens throughout the islands, the plant is with us today.

Another endangered plant is koʻoloaʻula or the red ʻilima (Abutilon menziesii) which produces small red-pink flowers no more than an inch across.

One of the more unusual plants is the hidden-petaled abutilon (Abutilon eremitopetalum) whose petals are so small that they do not protrude beyond the calyx of the flower.  This plant is endemic to the island of Lanaʻi and is endangered.

Another really rare plant is Abutilon sandwicense which is endemic to the island of Oʻahu.  The flowers have an unusual shape and are about 3-4 inches across.

The plant can be found in mesic forests sheltered within certain gullies in the Waiʻanae Mountains.

One of the coolest things at Any Greenwell is a butterfly cage in the back of the facility where Kamehameha Butterfly (Vanessa tamehameha) are raised.  Caterpillars are collected in the wild and are brought into the cage where they transform into chrysalis and then into butterflies.

The backside of the lower wing of Kamehameha butterflies are drab, but when you look at the butterfly from the top, the wings have an orange and back pattern with white and black dots.

Time past quickly and I completed my circuit of the garden by seeing the nursery where native plants. are propagated.  Thanks to the work of horticulturalists, many native plants that would have otherwise gone extinct and can be seen at Amy Greenwell.  What a great place to visit!


Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden

The Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii, Polynesian Instroduced Plants

Kupuna Kalo, Welcoming Back the Taro Varieties of our Ancestors

Ma‘o hau hele, Hibiscus brackenridgei, State of Hawaii, Division of Forestry and Wildlife

Kauai Kokio, Kokia kauauensis, Wikipedia