The Beatrice H. Krauss Hawaiian Ethnobotanical Garden

What is Ethnobotany?

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of relationships that exist between people and plants of a given area, in this case Hawai’i.

Who was Beatrice Krauss?

Beatrice Krauss (1903-1998) was a renowned ethnobotanist who dedicated much of her career to studying Hawaiian plants and their traditional uses. In the 1970’s she worked at the Lyon Arboretum as a research associate and lecturer, beginning work on the Hawaiian Ethnobotany Garden in 1975.

The Hawaiian Ethnobotany Garden

The ethnobotany garden is designed to showcase those plants that were important in traditional Hawaiian culture, some of which continue to be of great importance today such as kalo (taro) and the many flowering plants used for lei. At present the garden comprises over 60 different species, including the 27 “canoe plants” brought to Hawai’i by the Polynesians who settled here over1700 years ago.

The plants in the Ethnobotany Garden are all documented to have been used for such diverse purposes as construction of traditional hale and canoes; making and dying of kapa (barkcloth); food and food storage; weapons, tools, adornment and ceremonial use. Sharing this information with visitors is one of the primary goals of the Ethnobotany Garden, helping to preserve a cultural knowledge of plants that has lost much of its relevance in modern Hawai’i.

The Medicinal Garden

Within the Hawaiian Ethnobotany Garden you will find an area dedicated specifically to plants used medicinally by Hawaiian people. It is important to understand that Hawaiian medicine is not something that just took place in the past, rather it is an evolving pharmacopeia that incorporates new plants and new ideas to help heal the body. Many of the plants in this garden are neither native nor introduced by Polynesians, but are plants that we have hānai (adopted) because of their efficacy in curing illnesses.

Kalo Conservation at Lyon

Taro (Colocasia esculenta) known in Hawaii as kalo is the staple crop plant of the Hawaiian people. In the Hawaiian cosmology, the kalo plant or Haloa, is also considered to be the elder brother of all Hawaiian people, playing a prominent part in all versions of the Hawaiian creation myth. Wetland kalo was grown on stream banks, in freshwater marshes and in “pondfields” called lo’i. A series of lo’i have been restored alongside the river in the Arboretum. These probably fell out of use in the late 1800’s but are now being regularly maintained by community volunteers.


Historically Hawaiians have recognized up to 300 varieties of kalo and today only about 60 to 70 of these survive. In 1956 Mr Don Anderson was hired as ground superintendent at Lyon and by the 1970’s he had amassed the largest kalo collection in Hawai’i, cultivating over 154 different varieties of kalo , of which 56 were Hawaiian. At one time what is now the lawn was covered entirely in kalo plantings!(see photo) During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the project fell into serious decline and attempts were made to store the kalo varieties in germplasm. Over the last few years we have begun to re-establish the Lyon Arboretum kalo collection by bringing varieties out of germplasm storage to propagate once more.

Visiting the Garden

As visitors walk around the garden, they will see plant signs with symbols that denote what each plant was used for. To interpret these signs, please ask in the Visitor Centre for a sheet explaining what each of these symbols represents.

We are currently planning to improve interpretation of the Ethnobotanical Garden, developing information booklets for both the Ethnobotany Garden and the Medicinal Garden, as well as a series of signs that will highlight specific themes integral to Hawaiian Ethnobotany.

For more information about the B.Krauss Ethnobotany Garden: Please contact resident ethnobotanist Liloa Dunn: