National Tropical Botanical Garden - Kauai

Breadfruit at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai

In my opinion, an interesting garden blog entry is similar to a salad nicoise – it is best when a variety of fresh, bite sized ingredients that complement and enhance each other are used. It should be an appealing mélange of slightly filling information with a splash (not too much!) of vinaigrette opinions to round out the flavor.

So in the spirit of salad nicoise - not too filling but appetizing nonetheless -  I present to you my latest entry:

KAUAI! Almost forty years ago (gasp) I hiked the Kalalau Valley goat trail on the side of a cliff for 2 days to get to an uninhabited magical beach that you can now see in some episodes of ‘Lost’:
Kalalau Valley - where I hiked to many years ago

Back then, the island of Kauai was a sleepy backwater where life moved slowly…it still is, although wealthy celebrities have since discovered it.  But here I am once again, enthrall to the ‘Garden Island’ and her sultry charms.

This is the home of the 80 acre Allerton Garden (part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden). On my first day here I head directly to the south shore to see this unbelievable hidden gem, first a home of Hawaiian Queen Emma and then transformed by an artist and an architect in the mid 20th century.

I take a wonderful tour with John, a surfer dude who is training to be a font of tropical plant knowledge ( he is not quite there yet...I stopped asking hard botanical questions after he explained he was studying as fast as he can).

John giving his wonderful Allerton Garden Tour
John points out the native plants (brought to the Hawaiian Island by birds and waves most likely), the ‘canoe plants’ (brought here by ancient Tahitians) and the naturalized invasives (brought here by the ranchers, sugar cane growers, colonizers and the well meaning know-nothings)….

Allerton Garden - 'Lawai Kai' - on the Island of Kauai (in the State of Hawaii) August 2010

All around me in this deep verdant valley paradise are exotic species – breadfruit, calabash, ginger, cava, yellow bamboo, Travellers palm, Monkeypod tree, Kiawe ( mesquite), bird of paradise, Ti plant, Ixora. I studied horticulture at University of Hawaii, Manoa campus, (the legendary ethnobotanist, Bea Krauss, was a lecturer there when I attended) and I used to know the name of every plant here. The plants greet me like old friends and I remember their Latin names in fits and starts as the slow tsunami of memory engulfs me -‘Strelitzia' just popped in my head….

Strelitzia reginae - Bird of Paradise


Allerton Garden is a series of tropical garden rooms dotted with European statues, myriad water features and a luxuriant golden bamboo grove.

Golden Bamboo Grove in Allerton Garden

The focus is on landscape design but it is the plants that capture my imagination.

Along the tour John stops to show us a large stand of native Shampoo Ginger or `awapuhi kuahiwi. The botanical name is Zingiber zerumbet. (got that, John?). Shampoo ginger was introduced to Hawai'i by the early Polynesians who used the sap from the flowers as a shampoo.
In the summer, new leafy stems emerge from ground level and grow to be about 2 to 3 feet tall. The leaves are followed by the emergence of flowering shoots that develop tips that look like pine cones. After several weeks, most  the flowering heads gradually turn a bright, eye-catching red.

awapuhi - shampoo ginger
John cut a bulbous flowering head and squeezes. Out gushes a gingery-fragrant, watery sap. This slightly slippery liquid is a natural shampoo and is what made Paul Mitchell a millionaire.

John squeezing the shampoo sap

The garden was created by wealthy Robert Allerton and John Gregg, an architect (Gregg was the adopted 'son',  he was about 20 years younger than Allerton).
They purchased the lower portion of Lāwa‘i Valley in 1937 and moved into their new home in 1938 which was designed by John Gregg (shown in the photo above).

They spent about 25 years designing the gardens and in 1964, the last year of Robert Allerton’s life, the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden was established. A gift from Robert to the fledgling institution made possible the purchase of land adjacent to the Allerton Garden, which became McBryde Garden. In 1986 when Gregg passed away, the Allerton garden joined it.

Here are some photos of features in Allerton Garden:

The fascinating aspect of Allerton Garden to many people is that it is the locaiton for several movies. In fact, this past June and July it was closed to the public because the latest ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was being filmed there. Here is one location you will see in that upcoming movie:
Allerton Garden View

And this is where in ‘Jurassic Park’ the scientist and his niece and nephew find dinosaur eggs, “Life found a way”. Remember these trees?

If you ever go to Kauai, put the Allerton Garden in Lawai kai on your ‘must see’ list!

Look at this to see why I went back to Kauai - there is no other place like it for garden lovers..


  1. Fascinating! Thank you. Did you know that when you want to pull out a dead bird of paradise flower all you have to do is pull on the stem of the flower and it comes out as if was popping out of a socket. It keeps the rest looking wonderful without all the dead flowers are having to get your cutters out. FYI :-)

  2. No I didn't - thanks for that and I hope that tip gets passed around...I do know that it is called Crane flower in South Africa because it looks like the head of a crane.


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