Remember the Arboretum
Part visitor attraction, part research facility, UH’s botanical garden makes a comeback
Less than three and a half miles, as the mynah flies, from downtown Honolulu lies 194 seemingly primeval acres nestled deep in the back of Mānoa Valley. Jurassic Park could have been shot here; the popular television show Lost has filmed nearby. Majestic trees canopy the lush forest floor and a constant murmur of birdsong, insects and dripping water fills the moist, fragrant air.
Established by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association in 1918 to demonstrate watershed restoration, test tree species for reforestation and collect living plants of economic value, Harold L. Lyon Arboretum became part of the University of Hawaiʻi in 1953. It was named for the botanist who served as its first director.
The arboretum is a repository for more than 5,000 species of rare tropical plants, as well as a research facility, living laboratory and classroom and Zen-like oasis. But the eternal sense generated by the garden’s green and tranquil ambiance belies recent uncertainty over its future.
Most of the facility’s buildings, charming wooden cottages built in the 1920s, are suffering from the valley’s humidity, insects and the onslaught of time. The arboretum was forced to close for five months in 2004, its buildings deemed unsafe for daily use. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources registered concerns about moneymaking activities on Conservation District Lands and the State Auditor critiqued management, charging UH with neglecting the facility.
Since then, various groups, including environmental and community organizations, weighed in and two university task groups made recommendations on core education and research missions in keeping with an academic institution.
Initial accommodations to assure safe public access allowed the arboretum to reopen at the start of 2005. Arboretum staff applauded the appointment of Mānoa Associate Professor of Botany Clifford Morden as interim director.
Renovations have begun with $3 million in state funding provided over two years. Still, Gary K. Ostrander, Mānoa vice chancellor for research, cautions that since past difficulties developed over an extended period, it will take time to resolve them.
"We’ve got some work in front of us. We’re on the right track, we’re definitely making progress. Though it’s going slower that we’d like, I’m trying to figure out how to ensure its long-term success. I’m not interested in a quick fix."
Ostrander has no such reservations about the staff, who kept the place running during the closure. "They are the biggest unacknowledged resource the arboretum has—incredibly dedicated, hardworking and focused. They have been absolutely wonderful during this transitional period."
A biologist by training, Ostrander seems as enchanted by the arboretum as the casual visitor. "It’s a very peaceful, quiet, tranquil place. When I go up there I certainly feel the stress of everyday life at the university ebbing out. There are so many unusual plants that you don’t see very often anywhere else in the world. Many of them are novel species for me. At various times of the year different plants flower and that gives you a different sense every time you go."
He exudes optimism about the arboretum’s future. "I have a vested interest in seeing the arboretum reestablished and fulfilling its mission of teaching, research and service to the community. I want to get the arboretum to a place where it’s fiscally solvent and meeting that mission with excellence.
"We’re going to be unique, we’re going to be different, and we’re going to be very very good at what we do."
The Harold L. Lyon Arboretum
The arboretum is located at 3860 Mānoa Road in Honolulu. It is open to the public for self-guided tours 9 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays. Call (808)988-0456 for information.