Evergreen

By Lois Taylor

Friday, May 31, 1996


Plants make journey to past possible

HAENA, Kauai - Here, on the wet north shore of Kauai, is one of the newest of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens' properties. Limahuli Garden extends over nearly 1,000 acres in a lush tropical valley.

The garden was established in 1967 by Juliet Rice Wichman to preserve and protect the valley's natural and cultural resources. "For more than 100 years before that, the valley was used to raise cattle," explained her grandson Charles "Chipper" Wichman, who is the manager of the garden. "The cattle trampled and ate the native plants, so weeds established themselves in the over-grazed areas. It needed to be protected, or it would be lost."

Juliet Wichman fenced out the cattle and began work on making Limahuli a living classroom for plant enthusiasts. In 1976 she gave 13 acres of the garden to the National Tropical Botanical Garden; her grandson gave the adjoining 989 acres to the organization two years ago.

The clear, cold Limahuli Stream begins 3,330 feet above sea level at the valley's top and drops over a 1,000-foot waterfall before reaching the valley floor. It runs through the center of the valley before flowing into the sea.

The valley has a variety of habitats for native plants, the remnant of a native forest, and some of the earliest known traces of the ancient Hawaiian culture.

The garden is open to the public for educational tours, but numbers of visitors are limited to preserve the valley's quiet and mystery. "Limahuli," means "turning hands," and the name was given to the area by its early inhabitants. The early Polynesians first settled here about 1,500 years ago.

It was their hands that turned the soil and planted the crops, and it was their hands that fitted the thousands of lava rocks together to form the ancient walls.

Chipper Wichman and his staff offer two tours, a simple walk through the lower garden for families and older visitors, and a fairly strenuous and longer hike to the higher reaches of the valley. There is an excellent free guidebook for those who prefer to explore on their own.

Wichman begins the tour at the big breadfruit tree, explaining that the early Polynesian voyagers brought breadfruit cuttings to Hawaii. Its wood was used for surfboards and small canoes as well as for musical instruments, and the gummy sap was used for caulking. The leaves made a fine sandpaper for finishing bowls, but the fruit was used only during times of famine.

The garden's ancient terrace system was built by these early settlers, and historians regard it as a significant archaeological site. Visitors are asked not to remove any of the rocks here.

The terraces were built to grow taro, and water from the stream was diverted through a series of small canals. After flowing through the planting, the water was returned to the main stream channel. This preservation of a vital resource was one of the many sound ecological practices employed by early Hawaiians.

At the fiddlehead fern collection, Wichman told the local legend of the ravenously hungry Piliwale sisters who ate throughout the night and slept all day, because they would turn to stone if touched by sunlight.

The greedy sisters' favorite food was the young frond of the fiddlehead fern. When they visited Lohiau, the chief of Haena, he decided to put the girls away once and for all. He invited them to the top of Limahuli Valley for an elaborate feast, saving the choice ferns for the final course.

They were so busy gulping down the ferns that they did not notice the approach of dawn. They tried to run, but were frozen in stone on the mountain ridge, where they still stand today.

Further along the trail is a grove of hala trees. Wichman explained that botanists had argued whe-

ther hala was a native plant or an early Polynesian introduction. The question was answered when a lava rock fell from a cliff near Hanaleii and split in half. Inside was fossilized hala predating man's arrival in Hawaii by several million years.

Visitors often admire the Christmas berry, octopus and autograph trees, and are dismayed when Wichman tells them that their removal is high on his work list. "A weed is a plant that is out of place," he said, and these introduced trees have invaded the habitat of native plants. The vigorous and aggressive autograph trees have aerial roots that are strangling their neighbors.

But generally, the garden is a peaceful place, looking much like it must have appeared to the ancient people who lived and worked there. To visit Limahuli Garden, call (808)-826-1053.



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