Ethnobotanical Forest-Garden on Hawaii

Botanical Dimensions owns and stewards 8 acres of land on the Big Island of Hawaii. At 2200’ elevation, the land was originally native upland forest. In 1979, a small house was built on the neighboring 5 acres, which Kat owns, with an adjacent shade-house for plant propagation. In the early 1980s, a natural clearing was enlarged to make room for exotic fruit trees and the beginning of a botanical repository, based on collections of Amazonian plants that were brought to the Big Island for the purpose of protecting their genetic heritage, along with the ethnographic data that was collected about their traditional use and mythology. In 1985, the concept dawned on Kat: To create a non-profit organization to support ethnobotanical investigation of interesting plant species; to collect, protect and propagate some of those species for ex-situ gardens in Hawaii and in-situ gardens in the Amazon; to be a gatherer of the folklore and traditions that attend many plant species. Botanical Dimensions was created at that time, gathered support, and in 1986 BD bought the Hawaii land.

A wide, winding trail was made through the forest land of BD, for the purpose of planting the specimens of rare medicinal plants alongside it, just as they often grow in their native habitat. Until the mid 1990s, plant collectors sent or brought plant species from Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, Kenya and Thailand. When possible, traditional lore was collected along with the plants. Some collectors were indigenous or mestizo Latin Americans; other collectors were American and Canadian university graduate students doing fieldwork. Grants were successfully solicited to support collection, transport, planting, and maintenance of the garden.

Today this land and forest-garden functions as a private reserve. Access is by invitation only, and contributions to support the garden are requested when visiting. When she in on the Big Island, Kat occasionally gives guided walks on the land, or holds classes on ethnobotany at her home there. We have always tried to preserve the native Hawaiian forest species that grow naturally there, but now we also work to propagate species that are particularly important to Hawaiian ethnobotany.

Budget and staff considerations have made it a real challenge to protect the forest from invasive species that plague the entire Hawaiian island chain, so that is the biggest maintenance concern in recent years. With supervision, volunteers sometimes help with invasive species management. Recently, with climate change, periodic drought has also become a concern in Hawaii, and a crisis for the native forest. Water issues have risen to great importance. Non-native wild pigs are major forest inhabitants. In 2013, we are actively practicing forest restoration and working with rural programs to fence out the non-native animals that disrupt the native plant species.

We maintain a precious reserve on a live volcano in the middle of the world’s largest ocean…    Life on Mauna Loa is indeed a flow of wonders and challenges. Your support is greatly appreciated.

Would you like to see the forest-garden and learn all about plants, their uses and their fascinating stories? Then join one of the ethnobotany intensives that Kathleen Harrison teaches each winter on the Big Island! Please email info(at)botanicaldimensions.org for details.