Raymond Keenan, director of landscaping at Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Island of Hawaii, lives in a tropical paradise spotted with dense jungles and forested mountain slopes. You would think it would be a horticulturist's dream, but Keenan struggles to find what he's looking for: native plants.
So his quest to transform the Kona coast property from a home of exotic plants from all corners of the globe into a celebration of Hawaii's native flora has been a gradual one.
"We are starting to put stuff together," he said. "It's not a wholesale pulling out of exotics. We're going section by section and planning out what will put where depending on availability and suitability."
Native plants are not in high demand, and local nurseries do not dedicate much real estate to them. The incursion of plants and trees from around the globe have fundamentally changed Hawaii's forests, with few native areas still in existence.
Keenan, born on Maui, grew up drawn to playing in the dirt and with an interest in plants. He always wondered why so many Hawaii hotels went out of their way to import flowers and trees for their properties. Now, after years in horticulture training that took him to Arizona, Florida and elsewhere, he has returned home to execute his vision for inviting Aloha State visitors to learn to love Hawaii's flowers, shrubs and trees.
"I'm not sure why it happened, but for as long as I can remember Hawaii hotels have generally been obsessed with exotics, and things people associate with the tropics, hibiscus, bird of paradise," he said. "That's not Hawaii. That's Asia and Africa. The native plants have traditionally been left out."
Keenan is passionate about his mission, and hopes it leads to more natives in local nurseries and at hotels and resorts throughout the state. While there has been a significant movement in Hawaii's tourism industry to deliver more robust and authentic cultural programming in recent years, few properties have translated that evolution to their landscaping philosophies as of yet.
After nearly two years on the job, he's making steady progress.
"We had a lot of areas that were denuded, with no plants," Keenan said. "I started collecting on my own, reaching out to all my contacts on Maui, I started volunteering around here to get to know the people and farms, and we're growing in house, as well."
Keenan and his team have transformed an oceanfront hillside near the resort's Kamuela Provision Company with a "mosaic" of rarely seen native species like aalii ( a shrub with red flowers), mao (a species of cotton endemic to Hawaii with yellow blooms) and a variety of other native flowering plants.
"I don't like monoculture with just one species of plant," he said. "I like to find all native Hawaiian plants right for the soil and climate and put them together in groups. There are no weeds, and the water rates and fertilizer rates are going down."
The Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, a historic 175-mile corridor and trail network created by native Hawaiians around the coast of Hawaii Island, cuts through the resort via an oceanfront path. Keenan is working with trail managers in restoring trail portions damaged by erosion while incorporating native plants.
The team also restored an anchialine pool on property. The small, enclosed body of brackish water is near the rocky coastline. The pools are unique habitats home to various kinds of opae (a small, native species of shrimp) and other organisms. The team removed invasive species in and around the pools, while keeping fertilization in the area to a minimum.
The initiative aligns with Hilton's Travel with Purpose goals announced in 2018, the company's pledge to cut its environmental footprint in half while doubling its social investment in communities by 2030.
Currently, Keenan and his team can provide tours of their projects by request. Eventually, once more native plant areas are established, guests will be able to take established routes around the property to learn more about the plants, Hawaii's ecology and the initiative.
"My hope is that we will do more of a walk from the south end of the property to the north end and have signage," he said. "Not just single signs with one species, but a handful of signs that explain the whole picture, the variety of species, the history of the area and the reasoning behind it all."