NTBG at 60: The First Six Decades on the Ground

By Jon Letman, Bulletin Editor

Long before there was a National Tropical Botanical Garden, a growing number of people in Hawaiʻi recognized the need to collect, preserve, and study tropical plants. These far-sighted individuals identified Hawaiʻi as having the optimal climate and environmental conditions to create a large and diverse botanical garden.

In the early 1900s, ongoing conversations between two noted botanical explorers — David Fairchild and Joseph Rock — evolved into a broader series of discussions about how to establish a national garden in the tropical regions of the United States. Following a decades-long and circuitous route, dozens of local and national civic organizations[1] and hundreds of impassioned plant conservation advocates including botanists, academics, and garden devotees[2] took up the cause of advocating for such a garden. Their tireless commitment of time, energy, and financial resources culminated with the signing of Public Law 88-449, the congressional charter[3] that created the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (PTBG) on August 19, 1964.

PTBG’s founding mission was mighty: to develop, operate, and maintain an educational and scientific center in the form of tropical botanical gardens. Its primary purpose was to conduct tropical botanical research, disseminate knowledge, collect and cultivate tropical flora, and contribute to the “education, instruction, and recreation of the people of the United States.”

Key to PTBG’s establishment was the support of Robert Allerton, one of the Garden’s founding Trustees who in 1938, together with his partner John Gregg Allerton, built a home and garden in Kauaʻi’s Lāwaʻi Valley beside a stream that flowed into the sea. Quoted in LIFE magazine in 1958, Robert said, “So much of the world’s natural beauty is being destroyed that it is my purpose to preserve — and frequently create — natural tropical beauty.” Although Robert Allerton died[4] just four months after PTBG was founded, his gift of one million dollars ensured that the Garden would continue to grow.

Left: Polyscias bisattenuata outplanting. Right: ʻŌhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha)

Putting Down Roots

And grow it did. In the Garden’s earliest years, however, there were no living collections, no research or education facilities, not even a physical location. Passionate plant enthusiasts committed to its mission, lobbied for PTBG to be based in various locations around Hawaiʻi. Ultimately, after much spirited debate and deliberation, it was the gift of 172 acres of McBryde Sugar Company property in the Lāwaʻi Valley purchased by John Gregg Allerton that became PTBG’s first physical location on Kauaʻi.

William S. Stewart was recruited from Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden as PTBG’s first scientific director. Stewart was fond of recalling how he dashed into the valley on the final day of 1969 to ensure the Lāwaʻi Garden had its first live plant in the ground at the dawn of the new decade. After more than a century of intensive sugarcane production in the Lāwaʻi Valley, transforming the land into a botanical garden required tremendous effort and an audacious sense of optimism.

From January 1971, PTBG began documenting its earliest work in The Bulletin of the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden edited by the director’s wife Maria Stewart. In that first issue, William Stewart wrote that “the first goal of the Garden is the preservation of these native Hawaiian endangered species.”

The Garden’s first decade was lean and rife with obstacles, but PTBG’s small staff began mapping the grounds, building roads and a nursery, and working from a temporary office above the valley rim. In 1971, the Garden established a herbarium to preserve collected plant specimens. The following year, work began on PTBG’s first satellite location, Kahanu Garden after it received a 60-acre gift of land outside Hāna, Maui encompassing Piʻilanihale Heiau, Hawaiʻi’s largest archeological structure[5].

Kahanu Garden

By the autumn of 1973, “land clearing, planning, building, and first plantings at [PTBG]’s Lāwaʻi Valley” was nearing completion. That same year PTBG published its first book List and Summary of the Flowering Plants of the Hawaiian Islands by Dr. Harold St. John. PTBG later reprinted Joseph Rock’s The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands (1974) and introduced Allertonia, a series of occasional scientific papers in 1975.

In subsequent years, Garden publishing partnerships have included: Flora Vitiensis Nova: A New Flora of Fiji, Vol 1-5 (Albert Smith, 1979-91); Flora of the Cook Islands (Bill Sykes, 2016); Flora of the Marquesas, Vol. 1 and 2 (2019-2020); Flora of Samoa (a project started by former PTBG ethnobotanist Arthur Whistler, 2022), and the online Flora of Hawaiʻi in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. Research for a Flora of Micronesia is ongoing. These scientific publications provide a fundamental baseline for species conservation.

Worthy of Study and Evaluation

The Garden’s Science Advisory Committee identified breadfruit as a significant Pacific Island tree “worthy of study and evaluation in the field and in cultivation” in 1974, the same year PTBG adopted its now familiar circular breadfruit logo.

In 1976, one of the Garden’s earliest supporters, Juliet Rice Wichman, gifted an initial 13 acres of property on Kauaʻi’s north shore which eventually resulted in establishing the Limahuli Valley Special Sub-zone which today includes the nearly one-thousand-acre Limahuli Garden and Preserve. The same year, the McBryde Sugar Co. donated a 9.5-acre parcel of land above the Lāwaʻi Valley’s western rim which became the Garden’s permanent headquarters, today home to administrative, education, and research facilities.

The 1970s saw the first public tours (1971), an intern program (1972), and the Garden’s first breadfruit collecting expeditions to Kiribati, Samoa, and French Polynesia (1977). That same year, PTBG conducted surveys and field trips across Hawaiʻi and the first successful collection and ex situ cultivation of the Kauaʻi endemic cliff-dwelling ʻālula (Brighamia insignis).

By the 1980s, PTBG staff was increasing its rough terrain fieldwork with successes discovering and rediscovering rare and endangered plants. The Garden’s herbarium and living collections continued to grow as staff embarked on new partnerships and collaborations with conservation scientists in Hawaiʻi and across the Pacific from New Caledonia and Fiji to Samoa, Tonga, Micronesia, the Marquesas Islands, and beyond.

In 1981, PTBG employed just over two dozen people, but as the staff grew, so did its collections of Zingiberales, Rubiacae, Erythrina, pandanus, palms, cycads, and endangered Hawaiian plants. Kahanu Garden built its collection of Pacific heritage crops and gained the Mary Wishard Memorial Coconut Grove while The Kampong maintained a striking variety of tropical fruiting and flowering trees, many collected by David Fairchild. In 1986, PTBG was designated one of four official Heliconia Society International repositories.

The Kampong

A Time of Change

In 1984, Catherine “Kay” Hauberg Sweeney donated her Coconut Grove, Florida property — previously the home and garden of David Fairchild — to PTBG, two years before John Gregg Allerton purchased additional tracts of land in the Lāwaʻi Valley which he left to the Garden upon his death in May 1986. In 1988, PTBG’s congressional charter was amended, renaming the organization National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG).

By the end of the 1980s, NTBG had proven itself as an institution dedicated to rare plant discovery, collection, and conservation, as well as its significant contributions to systematics and taxonomy through its herbarium. Increasingly, scientists and educators sought out the Garden’s expertise and resources. In 1990, NTBG assumed management of Allerton Garden on behalf of the Allerton Trust, two years before Hurricane Andrew pounded The Kampong (August 1992) and Hurricane ʻIniki (September 1992) devastated the gardens on Kauaʻi.

NTBG also established the Hawaiʻi Plant Conservation Center (1989-1994) which eventually became NTBG’s Conservation Program and the State of Hawaiʻi Plant Extinction Prevention Program, one of NTBG’s ongoing partners in conservation. 

NTBG’s final decade of the twentieth century saw the opening of the Bill and Jean Lane Visitor Center on Kauaʻi’s south shore (1997) and increased collaboration with scientific, educational, and cultural institutions, state and federal agencies, private and non-governmental organizations and nonprofits, and grassroots community groups.

The Garden continued making progress in the 2000s, playing an integral role in advancing the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and later helping develop the Hawaiʻi Strategy for Plant Conservation. In 2003, NTBG founded the Breadfruit Institute, followed by the opening of the Lāwaʻi Valley Conservation and Horticulture Center (2005) and the Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center on Kauaʻi (2008). These facilities helped NTBG continue advances in botanical fieldwork, horticultural excellence, education, research and collaboration.

Left: McBryde Garden. Right: Kokiʻo ʻulaʻula (Hibiscus kokio subspecies saintjohnianus)

In 2016, a multi-year effort, in part spearheaded by NTBG’s then director Chipper Wichman, successfully bid to host the first-ever International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in the United States. The global gathering welcomed over 10,000 delegates from 192 countries to Hawaiʻi. With NTBG and its partners helping elevate Pacific Island environmental and conservation issues on the world stage, the time had come to reach further.

Looking to the Future

In the twenty-first century, NTBG continues to partner, engage, and lead important plant science and conservation endeavors ranging from botanical surveys in Hawaiʻi, Micronesia, Samoa, and Palau to major breadfruit research and conservation efforts and distribution partnerships with collaborators in the Pacific, the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, Europe, and across Hawaiʻi and North America through the Global Breadfruit Initiative and Regenerative Organic Breadfruit Agroforest.

Looking to the future, NTBG’s work is more consequential than ever. The compound crises of biodiversity and habitat loss, exacerbated by the climate crisis, along with industrial pollution, the spread of invasive species and disease, food insecurity, and global instability all underscore the importance of advancing tropical plant science, education, and public engagement on matters related to plants and the ecosystems that sustain them.

At the same time, NTBG recognizes the global movement to squarely face injustices of the past and acknowledge that Western models of science and discovery in the natural world have benefited immeasurably from — and too often — at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous cultures have, over millennia, developed their own systems, knowledge, and stewardship that have and continue to inform NTBG as it seeks to understand, explain, and preserve the natural world.

Inspired by the intrinsic ties between humans and nature everywhere, NTBG continues to look to the relationships between people and plants as exemplified by Hawaiian cultural practices. This appreciation of Indigenous knowledge complements our decades of plant exploration, discovery, taxonomy, systematics, and horticulture as components of biocultural conservation.

Left: Ken Wood and Ben Nyberg. Right: Hau kuahiwi (Hibiscadelphus woodii)

As outlined in NTBG’s Strategic Plan 2023-2027, biocultural conservation, science, and stewardship of our living collections through horticultural excellence are being enhanced with new technologies such as drones, robotics, GIS mapping, data management, and communications. NTBG is pursuing our strategic priorities through advances in our seed and fern laboratories, conservation nurseries, in our gardens and in the field. Guided by our plan, we continue to advocate for tropical plants through public engagement, and in our own education and professional development programs. We recognize the importance of fostering deeper relationships between people and plants.

One of the best examples of how NTBG is helping people and plants flourish together is the recently completed International Center for Tropical Botany at The Kampong, a collaboration between Florida International University and NTBG where we are training the next generation of botanists.

NTBG continues to contribute to genetically diverse collections through collaborations with institutions like the Chicago Botanic Garden and the University of Hawaiʻi to name but two. NTBG has become a leader in plant taxonomy and floristics in the Pacific, committed to helping improve the understanding of plant distribution and documenting and describing tropical plant diversity, leveraging our staff and resources like our herbarium which, as of early 2024, houses nearly 96,000 specimens. This preserved material complements NTBG’s living collections with over 120,000 accessioned plants, making it the largest curated scientific collection of tropical Pacific plants in the world.

Other strategic goals, such as reducing the threat of plant extinctions, are being achieved by NTBG’s staff which to date has been associated with the discovery of at least 123 new plant taxa (species, varieties or subspecies). This includes 59 new taxa in Hawaiʻi as well as the rediscovery of at least 37 Hawaiian species previously thought to have gone extinct.

Alongside these concrete conservation and scientific goals, NTBG will continue to be a forward-looking organization, always seeking to build more interest and appreciation for preserving plant life, cultural heritage, and sustainable conservation behavior. Like those early advocates and founders of NTBG, we see endless value in protecting and understanding plant life with empathy and appreciation for nature.

60 years of building relationships between people and plants.

NTBG CEO and president, Janet Mayfield, describes NTBG as a “forever organization” that will always have an important role to play in preserving the plant life that makes our planet habitable. She underscores the timeliness of NTBG’s mission, emphasizing that today’s pressing global challenges parallel the gratifying nature of the organization’s work. Janet expresses a deep sense of honor and profound responsibility, stressing the imperative for NTBG to actively contribute to impactful solutions.

While much has changed in the six decades since NTBG was founded, the fundamental mandate to collect, conserve, and study plant life through the vehicle of a botanical garden remains as true today as it was then. We are still driven by the need to protect endangered plants and it is to the benefit of all humanity if we better understand and appreciate those plants. That basic truth will only become more relevant in the years ahead.

[1] As described in PTBG’s dedication address by then-PTBG member-at-large Colin Lennox, Bulletin Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1971)

[2] Botanists Dr. Harold Lyon, Dr. Harold St. John, W.W. Goodale Moir, as well as influential individuals including Elizabeth “Loy” Marks, Juliet Wichman, Edith Plews, along with members of the Garden Club of America and the Hawaiian Botanical Gardens Foundation, and many others played an instrumental role in the establishment of PTBG. For a detailed account of the founding of PTBG, see Bulletin Vol. XXX, No. 4 (Winter 2013-2014), pg. 1-7    

[3] PTBG (later renamed NTBG) was chartered by the U.S. Congress as a Title 36 national organization. The charter can be found at https://ntbg.org/about/story/

[4] Robert Allerton died on December 22, 1964. John Gregg Allerton died on May 1, 1986.

[5] Piʻilanihale Heiau was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964

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