Greenwell’s love of Hawaii led to garden we know today


Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden

The Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden is a delight for those visitors interested in Kona’s agricultural past. Dozens of native and Polynesian-introduced plants, which were used by Hawaiians for food, clothing, lumber, dyes, medicine, canoes and even a narcotic drink, can be found at this unique site owned by the Bishop Museum. Remnants of low stone walls, called kuaiwi, mark the boundaries of prehistoric agricultural plots set up by Hawaiians and can still be seen.

Early Hawaiians were master gardeners. With little more than a digging stick, called an oo, they cultivated vast amounts of food. In Kona’s dry terrain, Hawaiian farmers perfected methods of mulching, terracing and planting.

Appreciating the importance of dependable food sources, Kamehameha I built a large garden called Kuahewa on the slopes of Hualalai above Kailua. This garden lay within what historians call the Kona Field System, a vast dryland farming network three miles wide and 18 miles long. It stretched from above Kailua in the north to Kealakekua in the south, including the land in the ethnobotanical garden.

After the arrival of Capt. James Cook in 1778 and access to the first metal pick, Hawaiian gardens began to change. Immigrants planted Irish potatoes instead of kalo/taro. Imported horses and cattle trampled the fields and knocked down the stone walls. Numerous tropical pests like guava plants, lantana and prickly pear cactus were introduced, unwittingly or on purpose, which spread over the countryside. Where taro and sweet potatoes once grew in tidy plots, shaded by breadfruit, sugarcane and bananas, imported crops like macadamia nuts and coffee trees, avocados and papayas began to flourish.

This is not true on the grounds of the garden where Amy Greenwell lived until her death in 1974. Although she grew masses of roses and other exotic plants, her first love was Hawaii — its history, its people and the amazing culture she knew once had existed so successfully right in her own backyard. An amateur archaeologist who worked along with eminent Bishop Museum staff on the island of Hawaii, Greenwell recognized a kuaiwi when she saw one. An avid gardener, she also co-authored the fifth volume of “Flora Hawaiiensis” with botanist Otto Degener.

It was Greenwell’s dream that her gift to the Bishop Museum would preserve a precious piece of Old Hawaii she saw quickly disappearing. Today, her bequest provides the only public access to the archaeological features of the ancient Kona Field System.

The garden is open to the public five days a week. For more information and visiting hours, call 323-3318. Its new visitors center, which includes a gift shop and restrooms, opened last year.

Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.