Mary Adamski

Hawaii’s Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Sunday, February 9, 2003

Eden in Kula

Where, when, how much

Warren McCord knows what heaven is like. In fact, he's created a magnificent 8-acre slice of it in Kula, 3,300 feet up the slopes of Haleakala volcano on Maui. Nestled between two stream beds, Kula Botanical Garden is a meticulously landscaped haven, harboring some 2,000 plants, trees and flowers of various species.

"We've never counted all the species," McCord admits. "We probably should do it, but we've been too busy taking care of the garden -- and enjoying it. Visitors often spend three or four hours walking around; they don't want to miss a thing. Artists come here and paint. Lots of folks bring a book to read in the garden because it's just a lovely place to be."

Fuchsia blossoms dangle from their branches at Kula Botanical Garden, a haven on the slopes of Haleakala on Maui.

There are many things McCord loves about this Kula oasis. "The serenity, the strength of the big rock outcroppings and the beauty of the individual plants and flowers combine to make the garden a place I like to be in and return to as a true comfort zone," he says.

It's difficult to imagine that when McCord moved his family to Maui from San Francisco in 1968, this idyllic setting was a wild tangle of acacia trees. A landscape architect by profession, McCord directed the removal of those trees and started building his Eden from the ground up.

"Everything you see today has been planted, even the biggest trees," he notes. "When I opened my landscape architecture practice, I wanted a small garden so I could show my clients what their plantings would be like when they matured. Because there were no public gardens on Maui at the time, it seemed a good idea to put the two needs together. It became apparent very quickly that people loved seeing the garden, so we decided to open it to the public full time."

A tranquil path leads to Kula's orchid house, koi pond, aviary, covered bridge and a lovely white gazebo, where countless weddings take place.

Kula Botanical Garden celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. About 30,000 visitors annually walk its tranquil paths, which lead to an Orchid House, koi pond, aviary, covered bridge and a pretty white gazebo, where countless weddings have been performed. Unabashedly flaunting their beauty are native Hawaiian plants, proteas, orchids, bromeliads and a marvelous array of transplants, including coleus from Java, Dutchman's-pipe from Brazil, star jasmine from India, summer lilac from China and elkhorn fern from Australia.

"We have tried to make it a natural garden, not a formal garden," notes McCord. "That's why you will see things popping up here and there. Everything is kind of higgledy-piggledy; it's one of this and three of that, but it's a very relaxing place, a very beautiful place, and that's why people like it."

WHEN MCCORD first started designing the garden, he received an enthusiastic response from the community. He recalls: "Everybody who had a big garden in Kula would call and say, 'I have such-and-such. Would you like it?' Even if I had 20 of them, I would always say yes, because when I was at their home, I would inevitably find something I didn't have. One lady gave us a fabulous white bird of paradise, which was 6 feet tall when we planted it. Now it's 30 feet tall."

Bromeliads are among the array of striking flowers that delight visitors to Kula Botanical Garden. Below is a purple daisy.

McCord is especially proud of the protea collection. These otherworldly blooms are a bit finicky; they need well-drained soil, a lot of air movement, afternoon cloud cover and cool evenings with no frost. "Kula is ideal for them," he asserts. "We are the only botanical garden in the United States that can grow the full range of proteas; we have 60 different varieties."

Cymbidiums are abundant this time of year. McCord says these showy orchids require the coolness of spring, so you won't find them further down the slopes of Haleakala. But they thrive at Kula Botanical Garden, displaying their vivid rainbow of hues -- red, yellow, green and pink -- for eight months, from December through August.

Interestingly, most visitors aren't aware of what may be the garden's most important plantings: 12,000 pines flourishing on 10 adjacent acres. The first two weekends after Thanksgiving, McCord sells 1,800 of these fragrant Christmas trees, bringing in enough income to support the garden for an entire year.

Knowing this, many Upcountry residents come to the garden's parking lot year after year to purchase their perfectly pruned holiday tree. "We also provide a number of big trees -- 18 to 20 feet tall -- to hotels, and that's good because they sell for $400 to $500 apiece," McCord says. "The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, gets the tree for its annual tree-lighting ceremony from us, and the Grand Wailea Resort buys several thousand dollars' worth of trees from us every year."

According to McCord, Kula Botanical Garden itself has never made any money. "We keep the price of admission low so that everyone can afford to come," he says. "The revenue from admissions just covers the water bill, the taxes and the few people who help me with the maintenance work."

Each year, he hopes for brisk Christmas tree sales so he can fund improvements in the garden. He dreams of one day constructing a function area where couples can host wedding receptions. He talks of building a Menehune Garden with a "village" full of whimsical sculptures. "That would be something kids would really like," he says. "That's why we have Jackson chameleons, birds, fish and the African crowned cranes here -- to get children interested in nature."

McCord himself is in the garden every day. "I come sometimes late in the afternoon to the koi pond, which is one of my favorite places, to unwind and watch the ever-changing mosaic of fish. One of the most incredible experiences, which, unfortunately, is not available to the public, is to visit the garden at night when there's a full moon and no cloud cover. You walk around without a flashlight, and you can see everything because it's so bright. The whole garden is tinged with a mystical black and silver and gray. It's a completely different place. It's absolutely magical."


Kula Botanical Garden

Address: 638 Kekaulike Ave., Kula, HI 96790
Phone: 808-878-1715
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Admission: $5 for adults ($4.50 each for groups of 12 or more), $1 for children ages 6 through 12, $15 per person for an annual pass

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer
and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.

E-mail to Travel Editor

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