Piilani Lua, a guide at Kahanu Garden, adds insights with her chants and personal stories. // © 2015 Marty Wentzel
Feature image (above): Flanked by the slopes of Haleakala volcano, Piilanihale Heiau is the centerpiece of Kahanu Garden. // © 2015 Forest and Kim Starr, Flickr
At first glance, Kahanu Garden seems like an odd inclusion for National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to discovering, saving and studying tropical plants worldwide. While other NTBGs in Hawaii teem with exotic, colorful blossoms, Kahanu feels wild and vast, with green and black as the predominant hues.
But, as I discovered on a recent visit to the east Maui attraction, Kahanu Garden lives up to its billing as one of Hawaii’s standout natural and cultural jewels. Its immense scale alone is impressive. The forested flanks of Haleakala volcano rise up on one side, with jaw-dropping coastal views on the other. While it takes time and a fair bit of walking to explore its 464-acre expanse, the experience lends meaning to the surrounding region of Hana.
Set in one of the largest native hala (pandanus) forests in Hawaii, Kahanu Garden and its environs once played home to the earliest Polynesian voyagers. In the 19th century, Hawaii’s King Kamehameha III gave the land to a chief named Kahanu. Subsequent decades saw it change from a sugar plantation to a cattle ranch, until Kahanu’s ancestors donated it for use as a garden, which opened in 1974.
Today’s travelers can take a self-guided tour of Kahanu Garden with help from interpretive signs. However, I recommend calling ahead to schedule a guided tour. Our guide, Piilani Lua, helped put the attraction into context, from her opening chant to stories of her ancestors who lived in the area.
During our two-hour walk, Lua pointed out plants of importance to the ancient Hawaiians. As we stood beneath a gigantic kukui (candlenut) tree, Hawaii’s state tree, she described how early inhabitants used natural oil from its nuts to create fire. She pointed to stands of native koa trees, considered sacred among islanders and the source of a highly-prized wood. She led us to a gaping grove of breadfruit, telling us that Kahanu boasts the world’s largest and most diverse collection of the hearty tree. At a display of canoe (Polynesian introduced) plants such as taro, sweet potato, banana and coconut, she talked about their significance to islanders past and present.
At one point, our group sat in a thatched structure representing a traditional canoe hale (house). We imagined the ancient Polynesians painstakingly building each vessel and courageously sailing thousands of miles across the open ocean in search of new lands. In another open-air hale, rebuilt on an original home site, Lua described the Hawaiian values and traditions from centuries ago, many of which are still held dear today.
Kahanu Garden’s centerpiece is Piilanihale, a magnificent rock heiau (temple), which archaeologists believe took 350 years to build starting in 1200 A.D. A remarkable feat of engineering, the National Historic Landmark measures 341 by 415 feet at the top, with a front wall rising 50 feet high, making it the largest heiau in Hawaii. As we stood at its base, Lua offered a spine-tingling chant of appreciation.
Unlike many gardens, Kahanu doesn’t come on like gangbusters. Instead, it draws in its guests slowly, and then sends them away with newfound appreciation for the nature and culture it embraces.