Set in a narrow valley framed by soaring cliffs, Limahuli Garden and Preserve evokes the history of Kaua`i, and of the Hawaiian Islands. Born of volcanoes and isolated by thousands of miles of ocean from the rest of the world, those few species of plants, animals, and insects that arrived on these remote and barren shores had millions of years to evolve into unique forms found nowhere else on Earth.
It was not until a mere 1,800 years ago that human beings discovered these islands. Although very few endemic species on Hawai‘i were edible, the early Polynesian voyagers were able to survive and prosper because they brought with them, in their sea-going canoes, their most important plants and animals. These first explorers were believed to have come from what are now the Marquesas Islands. Archaeological evidence substantiates that the Limahuli Valley on Kaua‘i was one of the earliest settlements in what is now Hawai‘i.
Over time families and communities grew, new settlements were created, and natural boundaries - which extended along streams from the mountains into the ocean - developed between villages. A second human migration occurred about 1,000 years later, introducing new laws and beliefs that blended with and then replaced those of the original Hawaiians. The society that emerged was based on a hierarchy of four classes of people who were governed by strict laws (kapu). The divisions of land between villages became formalized into official units called ahupua‘a.
The ancient Hawaiians developed their ahupua`a system of resource management as a means to live sustainably in an island ecosystem. This system recognized the interconnection between the mountains and the ocean, and the roles that fresh water played in linking the two. By operating within this system they were able to sustain a large and healthy population while maintaining the integrity of their natural resources. Limahuli Valley was part of the ahupua`a of Hā‘ena. The name “Limahuli,” which means “turning hands,” aptly describes the agricultural activities of early Hawaiians in the Valley. Lava-rock terraces for growing taro (lo‘i kalo) were built here 700-1,000 years ago.
The arrival of Captain Cook in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 initiated an influx of human, animal, and plant immigrants from all over the world. After the Great Mahele (land division act) in 1848, Limahuli Valley became the property of an absentee landlord. The Valley was used to graze cattle, greatly accelerating the destruction of native plants. Subsequent reforestation of cleared lands was accomplished by introducing faster growing non-native trees, which overwhelmed the less aggressive native species.
In 1955, at the request of the Hui Ku‘ai ‘Āina O Hā‘ena, an association that had acquired the entire ahupua`a in 1875, the Fifth Circuit Court began proceedings to partition the land and create fee simple ownership of the ahupua‘a. This process took 12 years to complete, during which time Hawai‘i became a state and the new government designated the ahupua‘a of Hā‘ena as a new State Conservation District.
At the end of the partition process in 1967, Limahuli Valley was assigned to Juliet Rice Wichman, a member of the Hui who had long recognized the need to preserve and protect Limahuli. She immediately removed the cattle and began developing a garden. Land was cleared, gravel roads were installed, and restoration work to the taro terraces started. In 1976, she gifted the lower part of the Valley, now known as Limahuli Garden, to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and upon her death left the nearly 1,000 remaining acres to one of her grandsons, Chipper Wichman. After receiving formal training in tropical horticulture, both at NTBG and the University of Hawai‘i, Wichman continued his grandmother’s legacy by adding plantings in the Garden portion and conducting a botanical survey of the area known today as Limahuli Preserve. Subsequently, in 1994, Wichman gave his acreage to the NTBG as well, forming Limahuli Garden and Preserve.
The area’s unique resources prompted Wichman to seek new zoning regulations from the State. A master plan was developed, followed by the preparation of an environmental assessment. New legislation resulted in the creation of the Limahuli Valley Special Subzone. Implementation of the master plan began. Tours had been offered on a minimal basis to NTBG members; in 1995, a full-fledged public tour program was initiated and the construction of visitor facilities followed.
In 1997, the American Horticultural Society awarded Limahuli Garden its “Best Natural Botanical Garden” designation for demonstrating “best sound environmental practices of water, soil, and rare native plant conservation in an overall garden design.”
The goal for Limahuli Garden and Preserve is the ecological and cultural restoration of Limahuli Valley, using the ahupua`a system of resource management as a template for this work. The result is that past and present converge in this lovely valley, where native plants as well as ancient and contemporary Hawaiian culture are being actively preserved, nurtured, and perpetuated.