UH Hilo Botanical Gardens: Learning from a world class conservatory in our backyard.
By Cindy McCarty and Joanna Bloese
Come visit the UH Hilo Botanical Gardens to experience and learn about sustainable landscape design.
The Botanical Gardens at the University of Hawaii Hilo, located on the east side of the campus off Lanikaula Street, has long been an attraction for students and visitors. Upon exploring the gardens, it is easy to see why. The creator of the gardens, Dr. Don Hemmes, has transformed them into not only a beautifully manicured and intentionally landscaped space, but also a site of significant educational and biological importance.
While on a guided tour through the university’s gardens, it was easy to catch the contagious enthusiasm of Dr. Hemmes as he humbly reveals his masterpiece. The tour began at the brilliantly colored bromeliads, leading to the monstrous cycads, and finishing as we craned our necks to look at the lush, tall palms. The botanical gardens at UH Hilo are a hidden gem that holds information to educate students and the public on sustainable landscape species such as palms, cycads, and bromeliads.
As a young child growing up on his family farm in Iowa, Dr. Hemmes dreamed of becoming a landscaper. His love for plants and the natural environment led him to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology. Dr. Hemmes became a biology professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo in the fall of 1973. He taught his first class in botany to 70 students. The botanical gardens came to fruition when teaching the life cycle of pine trees and one student remarked that they had never seen one in real life. It was then that he started his mission to assist students on their educational journey. The gardens seemed the perfect place to provide firsthand learning. Since then, the gardens have morphed into an incredible oasis of winding paths to showcase a variety of palms, bromeliads and cycads from all over the world. What began as a simple effort at experiential learning for students has grown into an extensive collection of endangered plant species and a biological repository worth protecting.
As one journeys through the garden, you are traveling through various regions of the world where the palms, cycads, and bromeliads flourish: Asia, South America, Mexico, and Australia, just to name a few areas. You will find most plants are marked with plaques displaying their scientific names and geographic origin. Many rare and endangered species of palms and cycads are found here, some of them threatened in their native countries by coastal development, burning of forests and excessive harvesting for ceremonial use. All plants in the garden are alien to Hawaii. This is intentional because Dr. Hemmes realizes many Hawaiian residents have limited opportunities to travel (especially students), and he wants to bring the outside world to the botanical gardens for the public to enjoy.
The garden boasts an impressive and massive collection of cycads containing ten genera and more than 100 of the 380 species of cycads in the world. As old as the dinosaurs, cycads have proven to be sustainable, adaptable and do not require painstaking maintenance. Few cycads are susceptible to diseases, and they require little fertilizer. In fact, the only time Dr. Hemmes says he fertilizes the cycads using a slow-release fertilizer is when they are first potted. They do best in half cinder and half potting soil mixture as they require a great deal of drainage. Cycads grow in dry or rainy climates, making them perfect for either side of the island. They can be propagated by either pollination or budding on the plant that can be removed and planted. Although cycads can be pollinated by some insects, primarily earwigs in Hawaii, he actually control pollinates them himself to ensure the seeds are viable. You need both male and female plants that produce cones at the same time. Some of the cycads can generate up to 300 seeds per cone! Additionally, these plants can live for thousands of years. These factors combine to make cycads an excellent landscape ornamental for Hawaii. The main threats for cycads are new introductions of invasive species and theft.
While Dr. Hemmes has a weakness for cycads, his bromeliad and palm sections of the garden are impressive. The bromeliads bring in color and are monoecious, meaning they produce both male and female flowers to establish their own keiki. This trait provides affordable propagation for new plants. Palms are easy to obtain in Hawaii, as we have some of the biggest palm nurseries in the world. They have prolific flowers that produce large numbers of fruit that can be germinated and planted for new trees. However, palms require a little more fertilizer as certain species are susceptible to manganese deficiencies.
As for the future of the gardens, Dr. Hemmes said “I don’t know. I’m getting old and I don’t know what we are going to do.” One change he would like to see is that the University of Hawaii grants the gardens official status and provide administrative and financial assistance in maintaining them. Many universities have botanical gardens that are sustained for aesthetic and educational purposes. The value of the botanical gardens is immeasurable. They provide a safe place to educate students and the public, a breathtaking backdrop for photo shoots, walking paths, a therapeutic work environment for volunteers, and a seed repository for rare and endangered cycad and palm species. Admission to the gardens is free and Dr. Hemmes gives tours to groups of two or more people. The gardens are a great resource for anyone interested in these beautiful plants or interested in learning about sustainable landscape design in Hawaii.
Landscaping any area takes time, work, and money. Currently, the garden is maintained solely by donations and volunteers. Dr. Hemmes works in his gardens often, with another volunteer, Normand Goupil, who has generously given a lot of his time to maintaining the gardens for the public to enjoy. The Master Gardeners volunteer periodically as well. If you are interested in volunteering, donating, or learning about how you can introduce more of these self-sustaining plants, please reach out to Dr. Hemmes at email@example.com. University of Hawaii at Hilo Botanical Gardens | Big Island Guide
Cindy McCarty is a student at UH Hilo studying Biology and a research technician in the Entomology Lab at KREC.
Dr. Joanna Bloese is the Assistant Extension Specialist in Entomology specializing in the sustainable management of invasive invertebrate pests in Hawaii.