Drive north on Kauai's Highway 56, through the lively little town of Kapaa and on past sleepier Anahola, and it won't be long before the view becomes exceedingly green. Travel far enough along Kuhio Highway and the vegetation will grow so lush and dense that the road itself begins to shrink, squeezing into an ever-narrower collection of sharp turns and one-lane bridges fortified on either side by leafy walls of flourishing plants and trees.
While surrounded by such an overwhelming abundance of life, imagining Kauai without all that verdant glory might be difficult. Even so, most experts agree there was a time when the oldest of Hawaii's main islands was no more than a lifeless lump of lava rock separated by thousands of miles of ocean from the nearest continent.
Armed with that knowledge, any number of inquisitive Kauai visitors might find themselves wondering how all those plants got there.
"Plants came to Hawaii by wind and sea or in the tummies of birds," said Janet Leopold, director of communications for the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
Preserving natural heritage
A nonprofit organization managing nearly 2,000 acres in both Hawaii and Florida, the NTBG owns and maintains the Limahuli Garden and Preserve, located near Haena Beach on Kauai's North Shore. Meaning "turning hands" in Hawaiian, Limahuli was one of the first places on Kauai settled by ancient Hawaiians. It encompasses a narrow, nearly 1,000-acre valley stretching from the Pacific back into the island's steep central mountains.
First opened to visitors in 1995, the Limahuli Garden is an excellent place to learn about Kauai's rich history from both a cultural and botanical angle, starting with those seeds that either traveled via jet stream, persistent floating or within the muggy confines of an avian digestive tract to grow into the island's first plants.
Scientists estimate that those original settlers eventually evolved into about 1,200 native Hawaiian plant species, many of which are now endangered or already extinct.
"One of the reasons the native plants are threatened today is because they evolved in isolation," Leopold said. "So it wasn't necessary for them to create the defense mechanisms that some other plants in other places may have."
Self-guided tours along Limahuli's three-quarter-mile loop trail take patrons through a range of exhibit gardens featuring endemic plants along with those introduced by the first Polynesian voyagers and later Western arrivals. An early stop on the walk is a beautifully restored loi kalo, or terraced taro garden, that dates back 700 years.
Kalo, or taro, was the Hawaiians' most important crop, and they grew it using elegantly designed irrigation systems that diverted freshwater from a nearby stream over terraced fields and then returned the water to its source.
According to Leopold, the first Polynesian voyagers, likely from the Marquesas Islands, arrived in Hawaii during the third or fourth century, bringing with them a collection of 27 different "canoe plants" as well as dogs, chickens and pigs.
Taro, of course, was one of the plants that made the journey, but there was also banana, sweet potato, breadfruit and sugar cane. Ti plants were brought to fashion clothing and build thatched roofs, kukui for its valuable oil used in lamps, turmeric for medicines and coconut palms for everything from furniture to canoes.
Supplanting the past
Much of the walk at Limahuli is also devoted to plants introduced long after the rise of ancient Hawaiian society. The tour's Plantation Era Garden highlights plants brought to the Islands during the 18th and 19th centuries, including mango, papaya, pineapple, plumerias, gardenias and orchids.
Many of the less glamorous and often more aggressively invasive introduced species are also on display, such as the strawberry guava and autograph trees. The invasive species have done so well over the years that about 90% of all those striking, green plants visitors enjoy on their drives around the island were introduced after the first Western explorers arrived.
Working to conserve Kauai's native plants is something the folks at the NTBG don't take lightly, and while the 17-acre Limahuli Garden is a great place for visitors to better understand the island's plants and their unique history, efforts to both restore and protect endemic Kauai species are ongoing daily in the property's extensive preserve.
"It's a big job to take care of [the preserve's] 1,000 acres and try to eradicate all those invasive plants," Leopold said. "But we're doing it step by step, and we're having a lot of success."
A terrific excuse to spend an hour and a half taking in some of Kauai's superb natural beauty, self-guided tours through Limahuli Garden are $15 for adults and free for children under 12. Guided tours are $30 for adults, $15 for kids, by reservation only. All tours include an outstanding guidebook full of regional history, culture, legends and a tremendous amount of information about Hawaii's plants.
"People sometimes picture it like a turnstile botanical garden you find in cities on the mainland, with concrete paths and where all the plants are in flower beds and so forth, but none of our gardens are like that," Leopold said. "So you'll often get the husbands who want to be on the golf course who may come kicking and screaming, but they always leave saying, 'I'm so glad we came.'?"
The garden is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit www.ntbg.org.