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Two things are immediately noticeable in Hawaii. ’Americanization’ is expected, of course, but the fawning emphasis on indigenous Hawaiian culture is a troubling over-reach. Let me explain.
There are a series of world-class telescopes at La Silla, on the Atacama Desert, an extremely dry site in Chile that is rented from the sovereign Chileans. In a respectful move, the telescopes take native names Antu, Kueyen, Yepun and Melipel.
Hawaii is different. The gentle, hapless Hawaiians’ history is replete with efforts by foreigners to disrupt native rule. In the early 19th century, for example, French Protestants managed to have all Catholic priests deported. The Chinese, and the Japanese, too, have been variously complicit, but the final adventure was the work of American landowners. Forcing the popular Queen to abdicate, Hawaii was taken by military force in 1893.
Hawaiians call us ’haoles’, a vaguely disparaging word also used to describe anything non-native, including chickens! But haoles have glommed onto Hawaiian culture now — the Honolulu Advertiser, for example, has columns in Hawaiian, and the local NPR station does a similar news broadcast. Having essentially stolen a sovereign nation, this made me uneasy. It feels fawning and disingenuous at best.
Suzie and I spent three days on Kauai at a bed and b breakfast. The place is built in the Hawaii style, with thin walls for the rain, insulation not being necessary. Outside, a type of Bermuda grass predominates; very fine texture, very low, rarely cut. An avocado tree bombed huge fruit all night. Mango had just finished. Small dogs ran about. A Siamese cat could not get enough attention. Singapore Plumeria was everywhere: an evergreen Plumeria, bigger than a mature Ligustrum.
I managed to collect about a dozen cuttings and seeds of various plants, but not Plumeria. Rats. Chickens are everywhere. Hurricanes have spread them, and as mongoose was never introduced as on Oahu, they have thrived.
We were on an abrupt cliff, really a steep wall dark with deep plant material and overlooking the Waimea River, for three miles the only navigable river in the islands. Trees are outlined against the sky on the opposite ridge, revealing a hundred-foot canopy. Then you realize that you are really seeing only the canopy of a darkly mysterious rainforest.
Damp mornings appear without hurry, bringing the clean smell of overnight showers Hawaii style: very fine, warm and soft droplets forming in the mountains, ambling to lower elevations, finally wrapping a sweet cocoon around orchids, Pine Cone Ginger, Flame of the Forest, and countless unnamed plants. Rainbows are commonplace. This is a safe climate. Fragrances of countless perfumes are mixed in endless combination.
And the ocean! It’s a bit cool, and unruly for sure, engendering naiveté with a crispness and guileless innocence. Yes, one feels just a bit unsafe as the bottom falls dramatically away from every fine-sanded shore, unlike our gentle Gulf where hundreds of feet yield waist-deep water. The shore is dominated by mountains plunging to the water, or a gentle beach giving over to an eruption of uplands and rocky environment and planted by nature with Naupaka (called Scaevola in Florida). Australian Pines, too, litter the near beach, called Ironwood and though not as invasive as we see here, they do litter the landscape in the Pali Valley, a famous cliff where an earlier King is said to have driven his foes.
The plants! The plants!
Hawaii has no world-class Botanical Gardens like the Chicago, or St. Louis, or even our own NBG 20 years from now. There is the Foster Botanical Garden, where I shot many excellent photos. Some plants are huge, owing no doubt to the endless growing season.
Plants that we would never grow in full sun find homes in the brightest spots: the Gingers, the Alocasias, Monstera, Scindapsus. Why? No clue, yet. Shade trees unlike anything we have are ubiquitous, mostly evergreen owing to the climate; your Design Pundit has a bit of research to do. Careful readers of my colleague Doug Caldwell will recall his quixotic quest to replace Oaks with something else — I might have found some candidates.
Breadfruit is huge, often 40 feet or more. Queen’s Crape Myrtle and the Japanese Fern Tree reach 40 feet or so. There is a Royal Palm greater than 125 feet tall, and a tree called Quipo is 100 feet tall with a trunk 12 feet in diameter. Satin Leaf as a street tree and big as maple? Yep.
Cinnamon forms a fine shade tree. Bougainvillea is not much used. And the aforementioned Plumeria? Deeply rich and dense, these fine patio trees are nearly everywhere, volunteering in odd parking lots and between buildings, or planted as an accent. It is the emblematic Hawaiian plant.
After more than 1,000 photographs and three very long days, we flew home on an overnight non-stop from Honolulu to Atlanta. And glad to be home. It’s better here.
Don’t forget that Michael’s Design Class and his Plant ID class begin this week as part of Collier Adult Education. Michael also offers a class in using your Macintosh computer. See www.collieradulted.com.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Learn more at www.msadesign.com or contact Michael by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.msadesign.com. And watch for his forthcoming book on tropical plants.