Local knowledge for resilient and sustainable communities

Tobias Koehler, Noel Dickinson, Mike Demotta- National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), Kauai HI

Feature | Kauai HI | 12 November 2021
The horticulturists, botanists, biologists, and researchers at the botanical garden work hard to preserve and conserve the rich flora and genetic diversity of Hawaii. Medicine, traditional clothing, food, and raw materials have their origins in many of the plants found within the garden grounds. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
As the early morning sun shines, a warm Pacific Ocean breeze blows through the lush vegetation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the island of Kauai. Guests can be seen reading the plaques bearing the names of the unique plants and trees, found here while birds chirp in harmony.

We meet a team of horticulturists and botanists who discuss their work at the tropical botanical garden, and the importance of protecting the flora and fauna globally and in the Pacific region.

“The McBryde Garden is home to our living collections, which are all the plants that we house alive,” says Tobias Koehler, Director of the South Shore Gardens at the botanical garden.

“What makes us different than other parks and most botanical gardens is our science and conservation mission. We strive to have full provenance on every single plant in this garden so that we have its complete scientific value understood.”

Elaborating on this further with an example, Tobias explains, “Basically if you were at an art auction and were thinking about buying a Monet painting, you would want to know every single detail and little bit of information about it before you make a decision to bid or buy that painting.”

He stresses the importance and value of knowing everything about every single plant in the garden, which is primarily about the genetic diversity of the flora. “We are a genetic repository for the rarest plants, specifically native Hawaiian plants,” he says scanning the garden grounds.

A big part of the botanical garden’s focus and research programs focus on these native plants, which are endemic to Hawaii and other tropical areas. Koehler explains that the plants importance span back in history and continue to have current and future relevance.

“Most of the origins of human medicine lie in plants,” Tobias highlights. “Hawaii being a remote archipelago in the Pacific, has plants that can only be found here and nowhere else in the world. As much as we know and study here, there is just so much diversity and still many unknowns,” he emphasizes enthusiastically. “In addition to medicine, historically plants are also the source of clothing, food and other materials,” he adds.

The value of the rich and diverse plant collection in the botanical garden, coupled with the extensive and vast research programs, serve a very functional and crucial purpose in helping to provide knowledge to tackle global issues such as “food security and stochastic events,” affecting populations.

“In the event of a hurricane here in Hawaii for example, knowing what local food sources would be readily available, because a port or airport might be severely damaged and affect or delay our food supply from coming, is incredibly valuable. So there is knowledge in both the known and yet to be discovered plants which is why we look to the past, present, and future to help us fill in all the blanks,” Koehler reveals.

One particular food that has been found to be extremely valuable and important in the Pacific and other tropical global regions, Tobias explains is the breadfruit. Walking us through the garden we approach a large leafy breadfruit tree, under which Noel Dickinson. She is a research technician and site manager of the Breadfruit Institute, and its agroforestry demonstration located within the gardens.

“A quick description of a breadfruit would be to equate it to a green textured soccer ball, that is quite delicious and starchy,” says Noel as she feels around the bright green bumpy lines of the circular fruit. “The fruit grows on this tree and it’s actually a female flower. The tree itself sets both female and male flowers, but you only eat the female flowers which are the fruit.”

Noel explains the importance of breadfruit, one of the 27 canoe plants brought to Hawaii by voyaging Polynesians over the centuries. Interestingly, it is a resilient plant that could grow well in areas that currently suffer the highest rates of hunger. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“It’s eaten here in Hawaii by locals but it is not eaten as prevalently as some of the other island nations in the Pacific. That’s mainly because historically it was never really a traditional native staple starch for the Hawaiian people,” Dickinson explains. “It’s actually one of the 27 canoe plants.”

Canoe plants refer to plants that were brought over to Hawaii by the ancient voyaging Polynesians who came to settle on the island on canoes hence the name canoe plants.

Feeding off of the canoe plants allowed these ancient populations to grow strong and they set the stage for many of the foods that are grown and eaten in Hawaii now.

Some other canoe plants in addition to breadfruit include, banana sweet potato, sugar cane and the wauke plant also known as paper mulberry, which is used to make the traditional Hawaiian kapa cloth. Although the plants are not native to Hawaii they are very much an integral part of the culture and have been there for so long that they are often believed to in fact be native.

“They are very important and resilient plants!” Noel energetically exclaims. “They were able to withstand the long voyages over the open ocean, with salty air, and the dry hot sun for months on end, and when they arrived they were able to be planted and grew very well,” she emphasizes. “They were also used as utility plants and had multiple uses for house and canoe building, food, medicine, clothing and so much more.”

When asked why she is particularly interested in researching breadfruit, Noel responds that “the work we do here at the Breadfruit institute is important because the areas, and climates around the world in which breadfruit grows are actually the same areas that have and experience high rates of hunger,” she reveals. Ironically that same climate where hunger is, is perfect for breadfruit to grow,” she underscores further.

Leaning against the trunk of the breadfruit tree and looking up and its leaves, she sighs and with a grin Noel says, “I mean look at this tree, not only is it amazing to look at, but it’s also a very productive tree. This year alone, we had one tree where we harvested over a hundred and thirty pounds of breadfruit! That is one tree from this orchard. Can you imagine having an orchard of thirty trees? We could certainly feed an entire community.”

There are many rare and fascinating plants on Hawaii that are important to the people, culture and ecosystems of Hawaii. Mike is a native plant specialist who from a young age was interested in learning and studying horticulture. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
In trying to promote the importance of breadfruit, and provide information on its nutritional value, Dickinson says that she and her team have been working to change the attitudes and mindsets of people in the community about the types of starches they eat and encourage them to incorporate breadfruit into their diets.

“So far there has been a great reaction and many people are open to trying it out, “she confirms. “We’ve seen things like breadfruit hummus, one year we even had a breadfruit cook off where people showcased their talents and made their best breadfruit dishes. The Breadfruit Institute didn't even have a hand in that, so it shows us that people are really enthusiastic about this traditional crop. It affirms its importance and relevance today and is a great alternative for people who have celiac disease or are gluten sensitive, as it’s gluten free too.”

According to Dickinson, traditional knowledge of native Hawaiian and canoe plants, are integral to breadfruit and its sustainability. “When we are working on new planting ideas we always make it a point to try and reference the materials and methods our elders used, and clearly those were effective as they brought the plants here and grew them. They most definitely did not grow themselves,” she chuckles.

“Being able to have and include that cultural component, and traditional knowledge of our plants and methodologies of growing them is essential to us, and will continue to be with future generations,” she says as she walks us over to the botanical garden nursery to meet her colleague who specializes in native plants.

“I’ve been growing native plants as a sort of hobby for many years, and the foundation of my interest in native plants was Hula- the traditional Hawaiian dance,” says Mike Demotta, Curator of Living Collections who is a horticulturist and conservation restoration biologist by training. His specialty he tells us is on native Hawaiian plants, and their value to science, society as well as their cultural significance.

“Hawaiian culture and nature are extremely closely tied and quite frankly here you can’t have one without the other,” he underscores.

Hawaii is a remote archipelago of islands that are located about 2,000 miles from the U.S. mainland. This tremendous distance and the potential disruption to the supply of goods forces the local populations to think seriously about sustainable food sources. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
One of the things that really got him curious and interested in growing plants he says goes back to his days growing up on the island of Oahu. The native forest there he says is “pushed up to the highest mountain ridges,” due to development and agriculture, which often made him wonder why finding native plants was incredibly hard.

He was particularly interested in finding these florae to be able to make leis, a traditional Hawaiian garland made of various flower, leaves, seeds, and other ornaments.

“I wanted to know how to grow these plants and flowers for lei, which are very important in Hula and Hawaiian culture. They represent the manifestations of some of the Gods of Nature and the old religion. As Hawaiians we always adorn ourselves with different types of leis depending on different events and dances,” he proudly shares.

Mike explains that preserving the ecosystem, and rich biodiversity of the Hawaiian Islands, is important for maintaining watersheds, cultivating food, and keeping life on the island going.

Plants like breadfruit are examples of just how important these plants were in supporting ancient populations, and demonstrate how they used these plants to enhance their ecosystem. This work helps sustain the local Hawaiian knowledge that contributes to food security for a healthy population.