It’s like a green oasis on an increasingly urban island, a mecca of serene beauty and fruitful research over the last century. It was a place that was near and dear to Dr. Harold L. Lyon’s heart and is still held in great regard by many green industry professionals today.
We are, of course, talking about Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu.
“Without him, there would be no Foster Garden,” asserted Lyon’s friend and colleague Paul Weissich. “That was the first link in the chain of Hawai‘i’s botanic garden system.”
Today, that system, through Weissich’s work as its longtime director, encompasses four additional sites on O‘ahu — Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden, Koko Crater Botanical Garden, Liliʻuokalani Botanical Garden and Wahiawa Botanical Garden, each in its own unique climate. Those, in turn, influenced the highly regarded National Tropical Botanical Garden on Maui, Weissich said.
Weissich, of course, acknowledges the impact of that other place named after Lyon, nestled in Mānoa Valley, too.
The Lyon Arboretum still shines as a bastion of tropical plants and flora, where samples of Lyon’s acquired trees that helped to save Hawai‘i’s watershed can still be seen. But Weissich would like his forward thinking friend to be equally credited for the beginnings of our botanical gardens.
“It was his kernel of an idea to put several existing resources together — Foster Garden, what is now Lyon Arboretum, the library at HSPA (Hawai‘i Sugar Planters Association) and Bishop Museum — to turn it into a cooperative group to create a huge botanic garden system,” he said.
Weissich ran with that “kernel,” carrying on the legacy of a man who he only knew for a brief time. “I met him in 1950. He died in ’57.”
But that time made a lasting impression on him and many working in Hawai‘i’s landscape — from arborists to botanists to orchid growers to horticulturists and more.
“Lyon had an overall vision. He looked at the big picture and was a living scientist, who influenced Hawai‘i’s green industry,” said Heidi Bornhorst, former director of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, horticulturist and landscape consultant.
“It was he who helped convince Mary Mikihala Robinson Foster that if she wanted her garden to be perpetuated, she should give it to the city with an endowment and a caveat that it remain a botanical garden in perpetuity,” she explained.
Yet it’s still his work as a plant pathologist for HSPA, then heading the Department of Botany and Forestation for the Territory of Hawai‘i, and his time in Mānoa Valley, that are widely known — and for good reason.
According to Lyon Arboretum records, in 1922, Lyon became the head of the 124-acre tree experimental station in Mānoa. Lyon noticed that native plants could not grow in the soil that was trampled on by cattle.
For the next three decades, he experimented with many different introduced plants to find ones that were suitable for reforestation, and the goal of HSPA, of finding trees suitable to build a watershed, was achieved.
“Lyon went all over the world to reforest (Hawaii’s) barren areas,” Weissich said.
After Lyon’s death, the facility was renamed in his honor.
And today, it’s still carrying out vital work, helping those working in Hawaii’s tropical landscape.
“My hope is that the forests of Lyon Arboretum and Botanical Garden will continue to protect and preserve our vulnerable water supply,” said Karen Shigematsu, Lyon Arboretum research associate, botanist and plant record keeper. “Our growing O‘ahu population needs reliable water and agriculture to be sustainable. That was the original goal of the founders of what was Mānoa Arboretum, and then Lyon Arboretum, and it is just as essential today as in the past.”
“The Arboretum’s forest restoration areas and native Hawaiian plants offer opportunities for more research and understanding of how all these things work together,” she added.
Hawaii’s green industry can, in fact, have an active role in assisting the arboretum’s fill its mission. Support can include nurseries participating in the facility’s plant sales, introducing new plant material to the industry and homeowners, encouraging responsible use of landscape materials and not weeds, educating at all levels, and sharing information — such as plant identification, landscaping advice, other sources of plant material and shipping information — with others, said Elizabeth “Liz” Huppman, horticulturist at Lyon Arboretum.
Lyon showed that a private/public partnership could work and have lasting impact.
“Lyon’s vision of having botanical gardens in different parts of the Islands has come true thanks to the efforts of all kinds of people, not just state and city, but private also,” Huppman said.
What’s sweetly ironic, though, is how a man who has so deeply influenced Hawai‘i’s lush, tropical landscape was from a state known for harsh, cold weather.
Lyon was born in Hastings, Minn., Oct. 14, 1879. In winter, Minnesota can dip to -60 degrees. And that’s where Lyon grew up, the son of a farmer and schoolteacher, among eight children. His father died when he was a young boy and he worked in his mother’s gardens and corn and potato fields.
Lyon graduated from Hastings High School and enrolled in the University of Minnesota in 1896 and studied botany. Around the same time in the Territory of Hawaii, sugar took prominence in the Islands’ economy. In 1895, HSPA was founded. It was a “voluntary, nonprofit, incorporated association organized for the maintenance, advancement, improvement, and protection of the sugar industry in Hawaii and for the support of a sugarcane research station,” according to the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC, the organization HSPA became).
HSPA ran an Experiment Station, which conducted substantial research into the commodity. HSPA hired Lyon — then an assistant professor in botany at the University of Minnesota — as assistant plant pathologist for its Experiment Station in 1907. He dealt with diseases in the cane fields initially. But the job and responsibilities grew — which are detailed in a survey of his life, “Harold Lloyd Lyon – Hawaiian Sugar Botanist,” edited by Constance E. Hartt, available from the arboretum.
Despite his legendary stature, Weissich still remembers Lyon as a dedicated researcher and a “patient teacher.”
“I kept asking him so many questions!” Weissich recalled, as Lyon introduced him to the Foster Garden collection. “I was so interested in the ethnobotany of all these plants.”
Yet answer him he did, preparing Weissich and countless others for their role in taking care of Hawaii’s landscape.
“He made such a lasting impression with me,” Weissich said. “He was quite an influence here in Hawaii.”
Chris Aguinaldo is a writer and photographer in Hawaii. He’s also a former editor of Hawaii Landscape. See http://twitter.com/ChrisAguinaldo