LIHUE — Transforming an old sugar cane road in Lawai Valley — one in use for more than 100 years — into a Biodiversity Trail was what Chipper Wichman called an “audacious dream.”
For the National Tropical Botanical Garden, however, it was an important one. On Tuesday, during NTBG’s 50th anniversary celebration in McBryde Garden, the trail officially opened to the public.
“What better way to respond to the challenges that our world is facing than to transform this road and this part of our flagship garden into a cutting edge display that will engage our visitors emotionally?” Wichman, NTBG’s director and CEO, asked a crowd of about 400 people gathered for the event. “There is no better venue in the world to talk about the biodiversity crisis — where your food comes from, the challenges we face as a planet with water and sustainability — than here in this garden.”
Tuesday marked 50 years to the day since NTBG received its Congressional Charter. The invitation-only event included a dedication of the Daniel K. Inouye Overlook — part of the Biodiversity Trail — to honor the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, whose first piece of legislation as a rookie senator in 1962 was NTBG’s charter.
Irene Hirano, Inouye’s wife, said that if her husband were at the event he would have shared stories, as he so often did, including how his grandparents and father began their lives in Hawaii working at the McBryde Sugar Plantation.
“I know that he would be extremely pleased to be acknowledged in this way,” she said. “He would also be proud that the circle of benefactors included so many that made the garden possible. For him, it was never about what he was able to do, but really about what he could do working with other people who shared a vision and shared a dream.”
In addition to the overlook, Wichman unveiled a concept drawing of the Daniel K. Inouye Circle of Garden Benefactors, a fountain featuring the “financial heroes of NTBG” — those who have donated over $1 million.
“And the list is so long, and it keeps getting longer,” Wichman said. “So this opportunity is open to the end of the year, if any of you are so moved.”
His comment drew laughs from the crowd.
Each year, NTBG files with Congress an audit of financial transactions. The donations, over the last 50 years, total more than $200 million.
“That’s an amazing testimony of support,” Wichman said. “And with that support, we have grown to be five of the most beautiful gardens you’ll see anywhere in the world.”
And then there are the numerous NTBG programs focusing on conservation and education. Take NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute, which is feeding hungry people in 27 countries around the world, according to Wichman.
“The vision of our founders is truly fulfilled today,” he said.
As part of the golden anniversary ceremony, a breadfruit tree was planted along the Biodiversity Trail in honor of first lady Michelle Obama.
Diane Ragone, director of NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute, said breadfruit and the garden have been connected from the beginning — the breadfruit was selected as the garden’s logo 40 years ago. And the institute, she said, exemplifies NTBG’s mission of conservation, research and education.
“The garden at NTBG is unique in so many ways,” she said. “But it’s also unique in that we are the only botanical garden in the world that is a repository and holds a gene bank of an important food plant.”
Hirano said planting the tree was a way of acknowledging the first lady’s ties to Hawaii and honoring her commitment to health and wellness.
The young tree is just one of countless plants along the 800-foot Biodiversity Trail, which depicts 450 million years of evolution of life on the planet. The trail starts with a mist tunnel made of giant boulders and covered in mosses and lichens demonstrating early forms of plant life. From there, life becomes more and more complex, until twisted hunks of metal symbolize the loss of biodiversity today.
Finally, a “redemption area” offers walkers inspirational stories of hope and how gardens around the world, including NTBG, are working to improve habitats and make the world a better place. It is in this section of the trail that hundreds of orchids adorn once-forgotten logs from Lydgate Park.
“It’s lovely,” local artist and NTBG member Carol Ann Davis said after making her way down the path. “I think it’s wonderful what they’ve done.”
Natalie Maeda, a garden coordinator at Wilcox Elementary School, could be spotted walking along the trail with her 3-week-old daughter, Sierra, stopping to place the newborn’s hands on the mist- and moss-covered rocks.
Maeda said children learn best when they use their senses, and that the trail offers a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
“It shows it all,” she said. “It’s great.”
Andy Jasper, director of the NTBG South Shore gardens, including Allerton and McBryde, said there has never been a time in the history of the planet that there has been such a loss of biodiversity, and that the trail is meant to give people a reality check.
“This is this awkward moment,” Jasper said as he led visitors through the portion of twisted iron and rubbish. “We’ve got to face facts. The planet is under pressure.”
A tropical fruit orchard, in an area currently referred to as “food for thought,” lies at the opposite end of the Biodiversity Trail. NTBG’s future plans for this area include additional plantings and areas for reflection, refreshment, education and entertainment.
“This trail and this location, this food-for-thought hub, represents our future in engaging the public in a way that will change the world,” Wichman said.
The trail was funded through private donations; however, NTBG spokeswoman Janet Leopold could not confirm the exact costs involved. Though Tuesday was the official opening, a private dedication of the trail will be held at a later date.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.