The National Tropical Botanical Garden (originally the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden) was created by Congressional Charter as a not-for-profit institution, dedicated to tropical plant research, conservation, and education.
Following the enactment of this charter in 1964, the founding Trustees and other supporters of the new organization began looking for a location for its first garden. Although a number of sites in the Hawaiian Islands were discussed, the “short list” included a location on the island of O‘ahu and land in the Lāwa‘i Valley on the island of Kaua‘i. The initial purchase was 171 acres at Lāwa‘i in 1970. The site consisted of a section of the floor of the valley, largely planted in sugar cane, and the steep sloping sides of the valley. This became known as the Lāwa‘i Garden.
The Trustees determined that, in order to meet the goals of the institution, a network of gardens was required which would encompass different ecosystems and environmental conditions in order to grow and preserve a broader range of tropical plants.
The development of a garden site outside the town of Hāna on the Hawaiian island of Maui began in 1972. The gift and purchase of the two parcels which comprised this site was completed in 1974. Kahanu Garden was named in honor of the donor family, whose roots there dated back to the days of Hawaiian chiefs. A large native pandanus forest fringed the property. The site contained a major archaeological and cultural feature, Pi`ilanihale, which had previously been designated a National Historic Landmark. The annual rainfall in the area, as well as deep rich soils, made the new garden an ideal place to plant species from the humid tropics.
A gift of land in 1976 established the third garden of NTBG’s network. Limahuli, on the north shore of Kaua‘i, had been cared for and loved by Juliet Rice Wichman and her family for many years. This garden would complement the drier Lāwa‘i Garden. The site held extensive archaeological sites, ancient taro terraces built by some of the earliest Polynesian settlers on the island. The name “Limahuli” means “turning hands,” referring to the original inhabitants’ agricultural efforts. In 1994, the nearly 1,000-acre Limahuli Preserve was also gifted to the institution.
The fine personal collection of tropical plants, emphasizing the flora of Southeast and island Asia, had been assembled in Florida by horticulturist and plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild. He named it “The Kampong,” a Malay word describing a cluster of dwellings. Mrs. Catherine Hauberg Sweeney later acquired the property and continued in Fairchild's tradition. Through her efforts, The Kampong was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984; that same year she gifted it to the then Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden and maintained her home at The Kampong until her death in 1995.
The acquisition of this mainland garden resulted in the 1988 Congressional legislation to change the name from Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden to National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG).
Robert Allerton had purchased land in the Lāwa‘i Valley, adjacent to what would eventually become the Lāwa‘i Garden. He and his adopted son, John Gregg, set about to create an exquisite garden of landscape beauty and design. Both maintained a close relationship with the NTBG. After the passing of Robert, and later John Gregg Allerton, the property was placed in a trust to perpetuate this garden legacy. NTBG officially assumed management of the Allerton Garden for the Allerton Gardens Trust in the early 1990s.
During its formative years, the organization had leased land on the northeast rim, separated from the garden proper by canefields. Two small buildings were erected to provide space for the Garden’s first director and small staff. Two larger buildings followed, housing the organization’s library, a temporary visitors center, and museum. Intern housing was added to accommodate students enrolled in the Garden’s educational courses.
A four-building complex was envisioned for the headquarters for the organization, to be situated on new property on the northwest rim of the Lāwa‘i Valley. The first building was configured for research laboratories, but also housed the administrative staff until a dedicated administration building was completed. The transitional plan called for the library collection to be accommodated in the administration building, the herbarium to remain in the research building, and education activities to continue at the original site until the final two buildings, an education center and a herbarium-library, could be funded and constructed.
By 1992, construction of a new education center had just begun and the organization was looking forward to establishing its first permanent visitors center. Visitors programs were ongoing at the Lāwa‘i Garden, Allerton Garden, and Kahanu Garden; Garden members could also visit Limahuli Garden. The Kampong continued to be a living classroom for university courses in tropical horticulture. Internships and other training programs in horticulture and botany were ongoing at the Lāwa‘i Garden and the lectures and workshops program was popular with the local community. The world’s largest breadfruit collection had been established at Kahanu Garden, and Limahuli Garden was moving toward developing a master plan. A number of books and journals had been published by the NTBG. Volunteers led tours, assisted on the grounds, organized plant sales, and made items to be sold at the gift shop.
That year Hurricane Andrew hit The Kampong; a few weeks later Hurricane Iniki struck NTBG headquarters and its three gardens on Kaua‘i. Intern housing and the visitors center were destroyed. Other activities ceased while the Garden concentrated on saving the plants and recovering from the damage. Staff from all departments concentrated their efforts on restoring the gardens.
The organization resumed its interrupted activities thanks to the herculean efforts of its Trustees, staff, and volunteers. The education center at headquarters was finished and education programs restarted. The transformation of a 10-acre lot on the south shore of Kaua‘i into a visitors center included the award-winning restoration of a sugar plantation supervisor’s house and the development of thematic gardens.
One of the many milestones in NTBG’s history happened in 2000 when the Lāwa‘i Garden became the McBryde Garden. This dedication, resulting from a gift of endowment, honors the descendants of the family who once grew sugar cane in the Valley.
Research and education programs were expanded during this time, and NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute was formed. In more recent years the institution has strengthened its commitment to native plant conservation and habitat restoration. While NTBG had long been conducting ethnobotanical research, new emphasis was placed on perpetuating traditional knowledge. Most of the gardens had increased their acreage and built additional facilities, including the more than 16,000-sq. ft. Conservation and Horticulture Center in the Lāwa‘i Valley, and a number for use by the educational programs at The Kampong. In early 2008, NTBG realized its early vision by completing the 22,000-interior-square-foot Botanical Research Center to house its growing library and herbarium collection.
Histories on each of NTBG’s gardens are available in Our Gardens
Directors of the National Tropical Botanical Garden
Chipper Wichman - 2005 to Present
Paul A. Cox - 1998 to 2004
William M. Klein - 1994 to 1997
William L. Theobald (Director Emeritus) - 1975 to 1993
William S. Stewart - 1970 to 1975
Mateo Lettunich - President Emeritus and former Executive Director