2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Every month we will weave a lei for you, one that brings together plants and stories from our five botanic gardens. We will spotlight the NTBG staff and community members who create these beautiful works alongside their lei. February’s lei, created by Keinan Kawaihalau-Alejo, is an homage to the rich plant biodiversity conserved in McBryde Garden.
This gorgeous lei weaves tropical plants from around the world, gathered in McBryde Garden. Hawaiʻi, Brazil, and the Philippines are just some of the places represented by the plants that make up this richly studded garland. Each plant tells a story of the ecological and cultural relationships of their home, as well as the journeys our staff took to preserve them in McBryde Garden.
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The native species—including ʻākia, pōhinahina, and ahuʻawa—speak to NTBG’s commitment to perpetuating Hawaiʻi’s cherished flora. The golden berries of the endangered Heptapleurum albidobracteatum, a small tree found in the montane forests of Mindanao, share our dedication to safeguarding rare plants from across the tropics. Masterfully woven together by Keinan Kawaihalau-Alejo, this lei is a celebration of McBryde Garden’s conservation legacy.
Lei is an avenue that allows myself to connect with my Hawaiian heritage and love for plants. It is so much more than a necklace of flowers and foliage. It’s a special adornment crafted with deeper seeded meanings from the type of lei, the technique, as well as the materials and the meaning behind them. Gifting lei to others is meant to be personal and heartfelt. Not only are you giving them a piece of your mana that was incorporated while you crafted the lei, but also because of the careful thought that was put into all aspects of your lei.
My vision for this particular lei was to have it resemble and celebrate ʻōhiʻa lehua mamo (yellow). I’ve always had a special affinity for ʻōhiʻa. It’s one of the first native plants I’ve grown and have continued to care for throughout the years. I used white-flowered golden plume flowers to represent ʻōhiʻa as a substitute plant, given that ROD (Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death) is impacting these native trees and pruning them should be avoided.
The reason I chose to add plants like ʻākia, ahuʻawa, and pōhinahina is because I wanted to show how native plants can shine when paired correctly. Whilst working at Kauaʻi Nursery and Landscaping, I’ve seen native plants be passed up because they aren’t as showy as plants that have been brought in to Hawaiʻi.
The lesson that I’m trying to get at is native plants can work together with other plants under the right conditions, both in lei and the landscape. Both native and non-native can be incorporated and used to compliment one another rather than strictly one or the other.
I’ve always had a special connection with plants, however it wasn’t until four years ago that I figured out what that meant for my life and career goals. Although I had fun and enjoyed learning about the technical and scientific side of plants, the joy and excitement started when learning about the cultural significance and ethnobotanical aspects.
My advice to those who want to deepen their relationship with plants and places that define their home is to speak to others within your community. Speak to those who’ve come before you. Take the knowledge from others, add to it, and use it to give back to your community. There are so many different avenues in the agricultural field — so many different learning opportunities, internships and career paths. Try as many as you can and use that experience to find out which will suit you best.
Discover all of our lei legacy stories and check out upcoming events in celebration of NTBG’s 60th anniversary.