Nestled beneath the Ko’olau Mountains lies the picturesque Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden — a 400-acre rainforest garden and flood-control facility that is home to plants from tropical regions across the globe.
"You can walk around the world in a couple of miles," said Jon Hennington, public information officer for the Department of Parks and Recreation. "Ho’omaluhia is a place to connect with nature, with the beauty of the place, and it’s also a place where you can connect with yourself."
Ho’omaluhia was designed and built in 1981 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after floods in 1965 and 1969 destroyed Kaneohe homes, property and lives. An earthfill dam, lake (or reservoir) and recreational facilities were developed in conjunction with the City and County of Honolulu.
Ho’omaluhia opened to the public in 1982 and continues to provide flood protection for the Kaneohe community. Today the garden offers guided nature hikes, fishing, camping, hiking trails, botanical drawing and painting, art exhibits, a keiki fishing derby and a preschool nature hour. Admission is free and activities at the garden focus on the scenic natural environment. Special events like "Bluegrass in the Ko’olaus" and disc golf tournaments are also held throughout the year at the garden.
"Ho’omaluhia" means "to create peace and tranquility."
People come "to relax and get away from the freeway noises and the buildings and the honking horns, all the noise that goes with suburbia," said Olive Vanselow, recreational specialist in ethnobotany, who has worked at Ho’omaluhia since 1985.
"We’re only two miles from Kamehameha Highway but yet it seems like quite a distance."
Each area of Ho’omaluhia houses plants from a different part of the world, specifically the Philippines, Malaysia, tropical America, Sri Lanka, India, Melanesia, Polynesia, Africa and Hawaii. Many of the plants at the garden are endangered and rare with a rainforest origin.
IF YOU GO …
Ho’omaluhia has records on 2,683 types of plants; but according to Vanselow, the garden could be home to hundreds of thousands of plant varieties. Throughout the garden, illustrated signs give brief backgrounds on the various rainforest plants.
"We have some plants that are from unique areas of the world," Vanselow said. "You’re not going to find these trees and plants and flowers in other parts of Oahu, or other parts of Hawaii."
According to Hennington, each plant has a story behind how it came to the garden. Some plants were brought as collections were being built, some were donated or exchanged, some are native to the island and came by wind, water or birds, and a few that are highlighted in the courtyard garden arrived on canoe with early Polynesian voyagers.
The 32-acre freshwater, flood-control lake is named "loko waimaluhia," which means "peaceful freshwater." It’s about a 10-minute hike from the visitor center and home to wildlife including the endangered Hawaiian coot, ducks, egrets, turtles, bullfrogs, dragonflies, mongoose and a variety of fish.
"I think (visitors) gain an appreciation for the islands and the vegetation and we try to, if they can physically walk down to the lake, read the signs about how our wildlife is disappearing," Vanselow said. "And it’s also to develop a respect for the environment whether its here or elsewhere."
The lake collects from three different stream systems on the Ko’olau mountains. During heavy rains, an intake structure guides the water to the other side of the flood control dam in order to maintain an even water level. The facility was constructed so that the 32-acre lake’s water level could rise to 152 acres, so in case it rained heavily, the community below would be protected from flooding.
Seven staff members and a handful of faithful volunteers maintain the garden, which is supported by the Department of Parks and Recreation and funded by the City and County of Honolulu.
"We couldn’t do it without those volunteers," Hennington said. "They really do help us."
Ho’omaluhia is unique from other Oahu attractions in that it is a conservation district, meaning there is no commercial activity allowed.
"If you look in the master plan the facility was developed for the community, but there’s a lot of independent visitors around the world that find us," Vanselow said.
The garden gets about 165,000 visitors a year — anywhere from a few hundred on weekdays to up to 1,000 on a weekend day. Many come from schools, churches, community groups, boy scouts, girl scouts and the YMCA.
"We have so many interesting people and so many island people that grew up in the neighborhood then moved away and they’re surprised that we’re over here and they come and enjoy it," she said.
Hennington says Ho’omaluhia can also be a place of discovery.
"A lot of people have never been here and even people who have grown up here have never been here so I think it’s a great place to come and enjoy and learn something about nature and probably learn something about themselves if they spend some time here," he said.
"As Oahu has urbanized this remains an oasis — a literal oasis — where people can come and enjoy, so it’s really something very precious that we’re lucky to have. And also we’re able to preserve trees and plants from around the world from rainforests that might be endangered but here they’re protected."
Ho’omaluhia is the largest and youngest of the five Honolulu botanical gardens located in different ecological settings around Oahu. Foster Botanical Garden, Lili’uokalani Botanical Garden, Koko Crater Botanical Garden, Wahi’awa Botanical Garden and Ho’omaluhia are open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on Christmas and New Years Day.
"They’re all remarkable places to visit so we’re very lucky we have five incredible gardens in a relatively small area," Hennington said.
For more information on Ho’omaluhia and other Honolulu botanical gardens, visit honolulu.gov/parks/hbg.html.