After years of being known for the ‘rustic charm’ of our humble and admittedly under-sized entrance kiosk, exciting changes are afoot at Kahanu Garden and Preserve where our recently completed Visitor and Education Center is now open.
It used to be that visitors who found their way to the end of the dirt road were unsure if they had indeed arrived at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Hana, Maui site. Kahanu Garden is home to the awe-inspiring Piilanihale Heiau, a towering lava rock edifice revered as a place of worship and designated a National Historic Landmark, and yet our old visitor’s kiosk was small and challenging for staff and visitors, especially on rainy days.
With more than 15,000 visitors to Kahanu Garden each year, we have long wanted a visitor center that could accommodate and educate tourists and community members in a facility befitting the world-class archeological, botanical, cultural, and scenic wonders of Kahanu Garden.
Now, after many years of preparation and planning, the Kahanu Garden Visitor and Education Center is open. Driving through the garden’s front gate, visitors are welcomed with a plantation-style charm reminiscent of old Maui. Weary travelers, having driven the thirty-some miles of dense jungle hairpin curves and switchbacks along the often one-lane Hana highway can take a break and relax in the roomy, open floor plan of the new center.
The handsome green one-story building is adorned with native Hawaiian landscaping, rock art, and stately ohia (Metrosideros polymorpha) posts at the front entrance to support the building. Climbing half a dozen steps leads to an open-door plan that invites visitors inside where they’ll find a bright, warm interior clad in koa (Acacia koa), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), kamani (Calophyllum inophyllum), and other Polynesian hardwoods.
In the center of the building, a majestic photograph of Piilanihale Heiau offers a unique perspective as if you were at the base of the towering stone structure viewing the emblematic pig-shaped rock formation and stacked walls that surround.
The Visitor and Education Center also includes murals crafted by Hana’s youth using local hardwoods, many of which can be found in the garden. The artwork throughout the building tells a story. Above all of the doors are murals that depict the heiau, the voyage from Tahiti to Hawaii, and a collage of Polynesian ethnobotanical plants depicted in stained glass.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted with a warm “aloha!” and given a short orientation before being invited to explore the garden. In addition to learning about NTBG’s mission and what Kahanu Garden has to offer, the Visitor and Education Center carries garden-themed souvenirs and local crafts that reflect the plants in the garden. Items such as woven lauhala (pandanus) bracelets, māmaki loose leaf tea, books about tropical plants, and other items are available for purchase.
Also, within the center, is space for signage and mid-20th-century brochures and news clippings that tell stories of the surrounding plants, people, and culture. Here visitors can learn how Kahanu Garden was established in 1974 thanks to the great generosity of the Kahanu family and Hana Ranch who gifted two parcels of land to the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (now NTBG).
The building itself was built through a collaboration between Kahanu Garden staff, the contractor, Kipahulu Construction, and a Hana-based nonprofit, Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike. This project allowed high school students to learn important building and teamwork skills from their mentors and professionals. The students poured their heart and soul into the building construction and into the art they created.
Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike (literally: in doing, one learns) is focused on programs that help the Hāna community through grass-roots building projects, organic farming at Mahele Farm (which is part of Kahanu Garden property), and revitalizing the art of pounding taro (Colocasia esculenta) into poi. Through collective collaboration, the building portion of the project took place between June 2017 and April 2018.
Outside the center, guests can enjoy the wrap-around balcony that includes comfortable benches to enjoy a view of the breadfruit collection. Perhaps it is at this point visitors begin to slow down and realize there’s no need to rush or stick to a schedule. Kahanu is one of those rare places where you can spend more time, enjoy the garden, and really be present in the moment.
The completion of Kahanu Garden’s Visitor and Education Center represents more than a new building. It reaffirms a key value of NTBG as we work to grow plants, and grow people. The garden itself has evolved through the completion of this project and we look forward to the center honoring the significance of this place and the wondrous botanical collections within.
Kahanu Garden and Preserve staff wish to extend our sincere thanks to all the Hana community, Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike, our Garden colleagues, volunteers, supporters, and to our ancestors for paving the way.
By Mike Opgenorth, Director of Kahanu Garden and Preserve
This story originally appeared in The Bulletin – NTBG’s quarterly magazine for members. Support plant conservation. Click here to become an NTBG member now.