At home I'm a lackadaisical gardener, yet visiting Kauai has turned me into a garden-loving tourist.
Kauai, like its sister Hawaiian islands, is a botanical bonanza. Bathed in the island's natural steroids of endless sunshine and warm-rain cloudbursts, plants flourish. Wandering through one botanical garden I gaped at a croton, a broad-leaved tropical plant, that towered over my head; my houseplant version had shriveled and died when it was barely six inches tall.
Almost anything can, and does, grow in Kauai in the wild and in its botanical and home gardens. The island's lusher north and east sides are a kaleidoscope of luxuriant ferns; rope-thick vines; lacy orchids and shimmering flowers; mango and guava trees; and stately Cook pines, almost 200 feet tall.
Kauai lives up to its Garden Isle nickname in offering some of Hawaii's best and most atmospheric botanical gardens. Some go for the splashy, colorful tropical plants; others are dedicated to showcasing and preserving native Hawaiian plants, many of which are disappearing in the wild.
That's the dark side of Hawaii's verdant beauty. Most of the showy flowers and trees - plumeria, bougainvillea, many palm trees, even orchids - that are considered typically Hawaiian have been brought by people to the islands from elsewhere. Some of these introduced plants (such as guava and African tulip trees) grow like weeds, choking out the native plants. And habitat loss through grazing (by feral goats), hurricanes and other ills has decimated native plants.
So take a break from the beach and go down the garden path in Kauai, for enjoyment and easygoing education. Here are my favorite botanical gardens on the island:
Tucked away on Kauai's North Shore, Limahuli Garden and Preserve is the island's don't-miss garden for anyone interested in native plants, Hawaiian history - and tropical scenery.
The garden's setting is the stuff of fantasies, nestled into a narrow valley beneath greenery-draped rock spires that served as the Bali Hai backdrop in the movie "South Pacific."
Limahuli, a unit of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, covers almost 1,000 acres, much of it restricted for research and preservation. But visitors can walk a 3/4-mile hillside trail that winds through a demonstration garden on self-guided or guided tours.
This is a tucked-away, peaceful place with a little metal-roofed visitor center and, on the afternoon I explored the garden, just two other visitors. Soak up the serenity: sit on a bench, listen to the wind, look out to sea, and read the excellent guidebook that describes the numbered plants along the path, giving background on Hawaiian plants and culture. Just don't expect a lush flower garden; many of the traditional Hawaiian plants are much plainer.
Start at the ancient rock terraces, built at Limahuli about 700 years ago by early Hawaiians to cultivate taro, their most important crop. Walk onward among plants that originally were brought to the islands by Polynesian migrants (the first of such canoe voyagers are believed to have arrived in the Hawaiian islands around AD 200). They brought with them the plants that sustained their lives: ti plants, whose waxy leaves were used for everything from wrapping food to thatching houses; banana trees; coconut palms and more.
Keep walking into what's called the plantation-era garden, showing plants that people brought to Hawaii over the last 200 years ago - from pineapple and papaya to gardenias, orchids and heliconia. Usually considered typically Hawaiian, they're actually classified as "modern introductions" and are among the more than 10,000 species of plants estimated to have been brought to Hawaii since Captain Cook arrived in 1778. Introduced trees - including guava, mango, swamp mahogany and umbrella trees - have flourished in Kauai and the other islands, choking out native Hawaiian forests.
Limahuli is working hard to restore native habitat and preserve rare Hawaiian plants, including a patch of forest where invasive, alien trees were removed and native plants restored. Watch for mamaki, a nettle used for tea and medicine, and loulu, a fan-shaped palm native to Hawaii.
One of Limahuli's conservation success stories is the alula, an ungainly plant that looks like a cabbage on a big stick. It's endemic to Kauai and believed to be extinct (or with only one plant left) in the wild; National Tropical Botanical Garden staff rappelled down cliffs on the rugged Napali coast years ago to rescue some seeds. The alula, used medicinally by ancient Hawaiians to treat infections, now is grown in Limahuli (and its sister McBryde Garden) and even sold through some nurseries, a botanical testament to Hawaii's past.
Na 'Aina Kai
For something completely different, head to the sprawling and colorful Na 'Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, also on Kauai's North Shore.
While Limahuli has a natural feel, Na 'Aina Kai is manicured and more commercial, bursting with plants from palms, nutmeg and cinnamon trees to blazing red hibiscus flowers, gingers and heliconia. There's also hardwood plantation, growing thousands of teak and other trees for sustainable forestry.
About 100 bronze statues are scattered through Na 'Aina Kai's 240 acres; many are life-size, Norman Rockwell-mood sculptures of people. There's a meandering lagoon and woodland trails, a Japanese teahouse and waterfall; and a sprawling garden-hedge maze. For children, there's a special play garden, with a water-spray area, climbing frames, mock caves and more.
Na 'Aina Kai once was the private estate of Joyce and Ed Doty, an avid gardener and contractor/rancher who retired to Kauai from California in the early 1980s. The garden they created over the years, from what was once sugarcane and pasture lands, was a labor of their love. It was turned into a foundation and opened to the public in 2000 (and what was their home, perched above a pristine white-sand beach, is open for special events).
On an afternoon tour - the garden can be visited only on guided tours - an ebullient guide ferried a half-dozen of us around in one of the open-sided, golf-cart-style vehicles used to take visitors around the sprawling garden. We hopped off to wander paths; listen to the guide describe the wealth of plants; and admire the garden statues.
Allerton and McBryde gardens
On the southern end of Kauai, two side-by-side gardens, run by the National Tropical Botanical Garden, can easily absorb a full day.
The 80-acre Allerton Garden is tucked into a valley opening to the sea. Bought in the 1930s by Robert Allerton, heir of a wealthy Chicago industrial family, and developed into a series of garden rooms, it's a romantic and tranquil enclave. Ferns cloak ravines and bougainvillea spills down cliffs; palms stretch overhead; bamboo and fruit trees flourish. The above-ground roots of Moreton Bay fig trees undulate along a stream; the almost waist-high, otherworldly fins of wood were in scenes in the film "Jurassic Park." Walk onward to a reflecting pool and mini-pavilion, a European-garden-style oasis shaded by tropical trees.
The Allerton Garden can be visited only by reservation on guided tours; a sunset tour gives a peek at the house near the pristine beach where Allerton once lived.
The McBryde Garden, up the valley and along a meandering stream from Allerton, once was 171 acres of sugar cane and cliffs. Since the 1970s it's been turned into a garden of tropical delights, now with one of the world's largest collections of native Hawaiian plants.
Wander its paths under palms from Hawaii and around the Pacific. Revel in the colorful floral feast of heliconia, gingers and vivid red-orange blooms of coral trees. Learn about the "canoe plants" that Polynesian voyagers brought with them on their epic journeys, plants that provided them with food, fiber and medicine.
The McBryde Garden can be visited at your own pace; take the tram (first-come, first-serve) from the visitor center. Walk the mile of mostly unpaved paths. Take your time, and stop to smell the tropical flowers.