The land now occupied by the McBryde Garden lies in the southern part of what was once the Hawaiian ahupua'a (land division) of Lawa'i, originally extending along the Lawa'i Stream from the Kapalaoa Range to Lawa'i Bay. Along the lower course of the stream, which opens into the Pacific Ocean, the valley is deep and wide, with imposing cliffs framing it along both sides. Lawa'i was one of six ahupua'a that roughly form what is now the district of Kōloa. Throughout the valley there are indications of traditional Hawaiian archaeological sites that suggest that this land was once an important settlement of the early Polynesians voyagers who settled the islands of Hawai'i. These sites consist of remnants of habitation deposits, agricultural terraces, stone walls, a fishpond, and trails. Historic legends mention Lawa'i as the place where the great warrior Kemamo lived.
Although little is written about the early history of the Lawa'i Valley, the picture becomes clearer after the arrival of Westerners in the 1700s and particularly after Hawaii’s “Great Mahele” (land redistribution) in the mid-nineteenth century, when traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices were replaced by private land ownership with both plantation and small-scale farming. Lawa'i appears on maps as early as the 1820s. Land records show that the majority of the land in the Lawa'i ahupua'a was granted to James Young Kanehoa. Three other individuals were also awarded land parcels.
Kanehoa’s land was later passed to Hawaii’s Queen Emma. In 1876 Duncan McBryde leased Queen Emma’s land and his family purchased the property in 1886. By the early 1900s the upper valley was being used for large-scale sugar plantation cultivation and the lower valley had been leased to small taro and rice growers. By 1911, tenant farmers had replaced the taro and rice growers in the lower Lawa'i Valley.
In the early 1900s the McBryde Sugar Company constructed Pump Six, near the juncture of the upper and lower valley, to irrigate the newly established sugar cane plantation fields. The pumping station included a deep reservoir and a series of pipelines to deliver water up the valley and onto the fields above. A railroad system was also established at that time. The tracks circled the valley on its rim, passing through two tunnels on the western side of the valley and over three trestles crossing the upper valley and intersecting valleys on the eastern and western rims. Survey maps indicate that there were two camps in the valley, probably housing plantation workers.
After the Congressional Charter established the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden in 1964, the founding trustees began their search for a location for the new botanical garden. In 1970 the trustees purchased the original 171 acres in the upper Lawa'i Valley, forming the institution's first garden. The challenge began to transform the valley floor, planted in sugar cane and surrounded by steep volcanic cliffs. Plants were donated by researchers, plant collectors, botanical gardens, and others from throughout the tropical world. In the years since, the plant collections at McBryde Garden were expanded by targeting collection efforts within specific regions (provenance), families, species, cultivars (taxonomic), criticality (level of threat to its existence in the wild), cultural and other values.
This first garden became known as the Lawa'i Garden. In addition to programs in research and conservation, educational activities began early through visitors and internship programs. Initial repair work on Pump Six was conducted so that it could be used to house gardening equipment. This was followed many years later by extensive renovation of the adjacent Pump Manager's House, which provides some office space. A wood-and-shade cloth structure was built to serve as the Garden's first nursery. The institution's headquarters were constructed on a parcel overlooking the garden.
McBryde Garden sustained extensive damage in the fall of 1992 when the island of Kaua'i was struck by a Category 4 hurricane. Through the swift and herculean efforts of its staff and volunteers, hundreds of plants that would have died were saved. Subsequent activities included expeditions throughout Hawai'i and other Pacific Islands to re-collect as many lost species as possible.
Damage to the Garden and destruction of the nearby visitors center interrupted the regular public tour program until 1995. In 1997 a new visitors center was opened to service both the McBryde Garden and the Allerton Garden, situated on a 10-acre parcel outside the east end of the Valley.
As the result of an endowment gifted by the descendants of the family who had once owned the valley, in 2000 Lawa'i Garden was officially renamed the McBryde Garden. Facilities were significantly improved in 2005 with the construction of a state-of-the-art Conservation and Horticulture Center.
NTBG’s master plan for the Garden includes an improved network of trails and roads, and eventually the adaptive reuse of Pump Six as an interpretive hub for educational activities.