by Dale Moana Gilmartin

Less than three and a half miles, as the mynah flies, from downtown Honolulu is a place that could have been forgotten by time.  Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, 194 acres nestled deep in the back of Mānoa Valley, is a nearly primeval setting.  Majestic trees canopy the lush forest floor and a constant murmur of birdsong, insects and dripping water fills the moist, fragrant air.  “Jurassic Park” could have been filmed here and, in fact, episodes of the once-popular television show “Lost” were filmed nearby on several occasions.  

The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association established the arboretum in 1918 to demonstrate watershed restoration, test various tree species for reforestation, and collect living plants of economic value.  By the time the arboretum became part of the University of Hawai’i in 1953, what was once nearly barren, overgrazed pastureland had become the lush rainforest it is today.

Originally named Mānoa Arboretum, the current name honors the arboretum’s first director, botanist Harold L. Lyon.  The arboretum is now a repository for over 5,000 species of rare tropical plants, a research facility, living laboratory and classroom, and a Zen-like oasis.  But the garden’s eternal-seeming green and tranquil ambiance belies the recent uncertainty over public access during a pandemic.  Happily, visitors can now once again enjoy this precious slice of Mānoa Valley.  (see “Go Deeper” on page 3)  

Most of the facility’s buildings, charming wooden cottages constructed in the 1920s, had suffered from the valley’s humidity, insects and the onslaught of time. Before the pandemic, the last time the arboretum closed for any significant length of time was for five months in 2004, when significant renovations on the cottages were initiated. Then, in 2020, the Arboretum suffered the fate of so many O’ahu destinations, and remained closed for much of the year. According to arboretum office manager Derek Higashi, there were some upsides to the closure. “We were able to implement some long-awaited renovations to the gardens during the downtime,” he said. Higashi particularly encourages visitors to visit the newly-renovated spice garden, among many other themed gardens, including the canoe and native plant gardens. As 2021 brings us a renewed sense of hope, why don’t we put a visit to the arboretum on our calendars to help cultivate that optimism in our hearts and minds?

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