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In Hawaii, almost every visitor makes a beeline for the beaches, lured by white sand, warm seawater and glorious sunshine. Yet even the most devoted beachgoers should tear themselves away to see some of Hawaii’s botanical gardens.

These gardens of delights showcase some of the world’s richest collections of tropical plants.

On a recent trip to Oahu, I checked out botanical gardens (my three favorites are below). Here’s why it’s worth your time to visit at least one:

• You get a lovely walk along winding paths — from a few blocks to several miles — in the shade of towering trees.

• You can learn, easily and pleasantly, about Hawaii’s botanical wealth from garden brochures and plant labels or on guided walks.

• It’s not just plants, it’s people, too. Traditional Hawaiians lived off the plants that are featured in these gardens, and one garden even preserves ancient dwelling sites.

• Get to waterfalls. You can hike to a small waterfall in one garden and swim across a pond to a bigger waterfall in another garden.

Here’s a roundup:


Less than a half-hour drive from downtown Honolulu, this junglelike, 200-acre botanical garden looks like a film set for “Jurassic Park.” Its lush forest and uncrowded paths make a peaceful break from the busy streets and crowded beaches of Waikiki and Honolulu.

Along the trails, palm fronds rustle in the warm wind. Vivid orange and red heliconia, ginger and wild poinsettia trees punctuate the waves of green. Birdsong fills the air, with shama thrushes, unafraid of humans, skittering along trails and cockatoos calling (OK, sometimes screeching) overhead.

Part of the University of Hawaii, the arboretum stretches through the narrow upper Manoa Valley, hemmed by towering, vegetation-cloaked ridges. This is the only easily accessible tropical-rain forest on the island of Oahu. It’s seriously damp, bathed by 165 inches of rain a year.

Lyon Arboreum is a living outdoor lab for students and a place for researching, conserving and showcasing plants, including rare native Hawaiian ones. More than 5,000 tropical species thrive here, and the arboretum has one of the world’s largest collections of palms. Dense greenery edges the main trail and dozens of smaller trails that branch off it. In all, the arboretum has about a dozen miles of trail, said Lyon’s office manager Derek Higashi.

Stroll the broad, easy main trail from the small parking lot to `Aihualama Falls at the arboretum’s far end, a 3/4-mile walk each way (the trail narrows for the last several hundred feet). The waterfall was just a disappointing trickle when I was there during a dry period; when it rains the waterfall tumbles down a 20-foot rock face. (The bigger and better known Manoa Falls is outside the arboretum on a separate trail.)

Garden tips:

• Wear shoes with good soles since paths often are muddy and borrow an umbrella from the office.

• Don’t miss Inspiration Point, reached by a secondary trail, with its lovely overview of the arboretum.

Lyon Arboretum: 3860 Manoa Road, Honolulu. 808-988-0456 or Admission is by donation. Open Monday through Saturday; closed Sundays. Guided tours weekdays at 10 a.m.


Back in the heart of Honolulu, Foster Botanical Garden contains some of Oahu’s exceptional, and biggest, trees — some about 10 stories tall.

Don’t expect the bucolic tranquillity of Lyon Arboretum here. The two-square-block Foster garden, a city-run park, is wedged between a freeway and busy city streets. But in the shade of a massive baobab tree, the city din recedes.

One of the many seriously big trees in Foster garden (24 are registered in the county’s “exceptional trees” program) is a Bodhi tree, a South Asian fig. With a sinewy, silver trunk and heart-shaped leaves, it’s a descendant of the Bodhi tree in India under which Buddha famously sat and became enlightened in the sixth century B.C. (This tree arrived in Honolulu in the early 1900s, via Sri Lanka, as a cutting from a descendant Bodhi tree there).

Beyond big trees, the Foster garden showcases orchids and also has a butterfly garden; prehistoric-looking palms; and the quirky cannonball trees. Don’t stand under a cannonball tree; their heavy fruit is hard and about the size of a cannonball . It will hurt if it falls upon your head.

Garden tips:

• Docents offer free tours of Foster garden, definitely worth taking if your timing coincides (1 p.m. Monday through Saturday)

•Visit the ornate Kuan Yin Buddhist temple that adjoins the garden by the parking lot.

Foster Botanical Garden, 50 North Vineyard Blvd., Honolulu. 808-522-7066 or Admission $5. Open daily.


Now for something completely different. Drive to Oahu’s wave-pounded North Shore to explore Waimea Valley, a botanical garden and native Hawaiian cultural site.

This bucolic valley faced subdivision development a decade ago after it floundered financially as an outdoors-adventure theme park. After local protests and political wrangling, a nonprofit was created to preserve and administer it.

The 1,875 acres of Waimea Valley stretch from near the beach to uplands. About 150 acres of it are richly planted as a botanical garden, with many plants labeled.

The valley also is rich in Hawaiian history, a place where priests lived as long as a thousand years ago. Archaeological sites dot the narrow valley, including house and temple sites and re-creations of simple thatched dwellings.

Most visitors stick to the main roadway, a narrow paved route (cars forbidden except for small motorized carts that carry visitors unable to walk far). After about three-quarters of a mile, it dead-ends at a pond fed by a 45-foot waterfall. Visitors can swim across the pond to the waterfall (lifeguards are present and everyone must wear life jackets).

Some visitors make a beeline for the waterfall. But take the time to talk with staff along the way. Seated at little kiosks or on benches, they demonstrate everything from ancient Hawaiian cloth-making to traditional musical instruments. One cheerful gentleman simply sat “talking story” with visitors about the valley’s past and Hawaiians’ traditional spiritual connection with the land.

Slowing down and listening to the locals, it’s easy to imagine life here hundreds of years ago — although the high-tech, power-generating wind turbines peeking over the ridge bring you back into the present day.

• Walk along the unpaved path that’s slightly uphill and parallel to the roadway. You’ll see fewer people and more archaeological sites and garden zones, from flourishing hibiscus, heliconia and palms to food and medicinal plants.

• Visit Waimea Valley on Thursday afternoon and you can go to a local farmers’ market (3 to 7 p.m.), for excellent fresh fruits and vegetables and prepared foods, including locally raised chicken dishes and fresh-caught fish.

Waimea Valley, 59-864 Kamehameha Highway, 808-638-7766 or Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (although the waterfall area is closed until Feb. 7 for rock stabilization). Admission is $15 for an adult.

Kristin Jackson: