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Just north of Hilo, a tropical garden invites strolling.

Nestled in the lush Onomea Valley on the Hamakua Coast 7 miles north of Hilo, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden--opened last July--can be a fascinating side trip for Big Island visitors.

Spreading over 17 acres on the edge of Onomea Bay, the garden is home to a diverse collection of tropical plants, including 41 kinds of ginger, more than 80 species of palms, 19 species of anthuriums, 94 species of bromeliads, 26 species of heliconias, and such tropical mainstays as breadfruit, kukui nut, coffee trees, and banana plants.

A stroll the 1-1/2-mile palm-shaded trail through the 5 acres currently landscaped can turn up such surprises as brilliant torch ginger blooming below betelnut palms or rare blue-skinned bananas.

The garden was established by Dan Lutkenhouse, a transplanted Californian with two goals in mind: to preserve the natural beauty of Onomea Valley and to provide a sanctuary for rare and endangered tropical plants, birds, and marine life. Hawaiian hawks are already at home here, and giant sea turtles often feed close to shore.

With the help of friends, Lutkenhouse hand-cleared paths in the jungle, dug a small lake with a pick and shovel, and built bridges from wooden planks salvaged from an abandoned sugar mill.

He also bought and restored an abandoned turn-of-the-century church about 1/4 mile south of the garden to serve as garden headquarters and house the Onomea Museum (you'll see historic photographs of Onomea Valley, and old calabashes and human-hair necklaces).

Many of the plants were scrounged from back-yard gardens, including mature palms about to be destroyed by construction near Hilo, and bromeliads and rare plants donated by local collectors. Lutkenhouse brought other plants from nurseries and arboretums on Oahu and elsewhere in the Pacific Basin; all are interspersed throughout the tropical forests of palms, banana plants, giant mango trees, and pandanus trees.

North from Hilo for a garden tour

From Hilo, take State Highway 19 north; turn right at the sign marked "4-mile Scenic Route" and drive about 1/2 mile to the old yellow church where tours start. Park here; 12-passenger vans take you to and from the garden, about 1/4 mile farther down the road.

Under a shelter near the garden entrance, a guide shows you breadfruit, passion fruit, guavas, sprouting coconuts, and other fruits or seeds you may see along the trail. Vans return to the church about every half-hour.

Beyond the shelter, the trail winds through the jungle area--where 20-foot-tall cycads spread fringed canopies above a patchwork carpet of bromeliads--to the jagged, rocky shore. Pause at the edge of Onomea Bay; you may spot sea turtles feeding just beyond the breakers. At Lily Lake, koi swim beneath water lilies and other water plants.

In the banyan canyon, banyan trees poke stout roots over 15-foot cliffs into quiet pools. You may spot vintage 19th-century bottles protruding from the trunks of the largest banyan; legend has it that these were left by Lono, an old fisherman who spent many happy nights drinking toasts to the bay's resident shark, Mr. Jack. In the palm jungle, groves of Alexandra palms rise 70 feet to shade paths covered with fallen fronds. Just beyond, a waterfall cascades into a quiet pond.

Garden hours are 9 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays and 11 to 5 Sundays; closed Christmas and New Year's. Since it is a nonprofit foundation supported largely by donations, visitors are asked to pay $6 per person (*10 per person including transportation from Hilo hotels).

To preserve the natural beauty and tranquillity of the gardens, only about 80 visitors per day can be accommodated; for information and suggested reservations, call (808) 964-5233.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1985
Words:605
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