Conservatory in bloom


POSTED: Saturday, October 17, 2009

“;We did the best we could with limited resources.”;

That's Scot Mitamura's modest assessment of the orchid and rare tropical plant conservatory at Foster Botanical Garden.

But the transformation from a vacant shell of a building a year ago to a lush and colorful collection of plants just six months later is testament to the vision and hard work of Mitamura, an orchid horticulturist for Honolulu Botanical Gardens, which includes Foster, and a team of staff and valued volunteers at the city's urban oasis. (Mitamura also credited state prisoners, who helped with some of the heavy work.)

A year ago (http:// hsblinks.com/va), someone complained to Kokua Line about being “;appalled to find the very expensive new glass greenhouse totally unused and rapidly falling into a state of irreversible disrepair.”;

We were told the glass-and-aluminum structure was not in disrepair, it was just “;unfinished.”; At that time, it wasn't known when the planned conservatory would be completed.

The conservatory—the only public one of its kind on Oahu—opened to the public just six months later in April.





        Where: 50 N. Vineyard Blvd.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Christmas and New Year's days


Admission: $5 general ($3 for Hawaii residents), 13 years and older; $1, child 6 to 12 years old; free, child 5 years and younger; $25 annual family pass


Guided tours: 1 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays depending on availability of volunteer docents


Phone: 522-7066 for information or reservations




Initially the centerpiece of a planned $13.2 million project during the administration of Mayor Jeremy Harris, only $2.1 million was released.

That allowed for the design and relocation of the community garden that sat on the site to an area behind the parking lot; design and construction of the 2,600-square-foot conservatory and work facilities; and design of a new maintenance facility.

With no money released for the design of displays or purchase of plants, irrigation and drainage systems, or interpretive signs, the structure sat empty for three years.

However, with perseverance, creativity and working within the operating budget—meaning no additional funds were allocated—the conservatory was finished and filled with an array of exotic plants.

Initially conceived of as an orchid conservatory, the climate-controlled structure houses about 100 different varieties of the plant. But just as visually dramatic are 500 or so “;supporting plants”;—rare and unusual ones that you won't see out on a casual stroll.

As Mitamura, 50, a graduate of the University of Hawaii, puts it, “;I like the oddball stuff.”;

In designing the plant displays, Mitamura, who's worked for the botanical gardens for 21 years, sought to “;show off”; the orchids, complementing them with a unique cast of foliage.

The orchids are rotated daily. With 8,000 or so varieties within the five gardens that make up Honolulu Botanical Gardens, the city can claim to have the largest public collection of orchids in the state, with the majority at Foster Garden.

Mitamura noted some critics don't see the need to house plants indoors in Hawaii's environment. But, he said, orchids are actually difficult to grow in the outdoors. Even at Foster Garden's outdoor orchid garden, he pointed to continuing problems with bulbul birds and rats eating the flowers, as well as theft.

“;We needed something more secure, to control pests and the environment and to display the orchids at a high quality,”; he said.

While there's no denying the beauty and dramatically bright colors of the orchids, Mitamura's collection of “;oddball”; plants is just as eye-catching.

Among them are Nepenthes—aka “;pitcher plant”;—with dangling reddish, hollowed-out flowers designed to catch insects; and the Ae Ae, a variegated banana plant that's “;very rare”; and “;only given to Hawaiian royalty.”; The banana peels, like the leaves of the Ae Ae, are striped.

Among a cluster of Coleus, Mitamura pointed to “;a fun one”; he had obtained years ago that was “;not stable genetically, so is constantly mutating.”; Surrounding that one plant are eight other Coleuses it spawned, each with a different leafy pattern.

In another section, a giant Boston fern, 6 feet around, solidly sits, while just outside the conservatory can be found “;the world's largest orchids”;—Grammatophyllum speciosum—that Mitamura says will grow to 10 to 15 feet in diameter. Unfortunately, they are not currently in bloom.

Mitamura's love and enthusiasm for all his plants—and pride in the new conservatory—are infectious as he leads a tour of the facility.

He finds validation in all the hard work put into completing the conservatory in the fact that “;visitors have really enjoyed”; the collection of plants, now a focal point of Foster Garden.