Saturday | July 23, 2016
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The tropical world in our Hawaiian gardens

What would a tropical garden be without bamboos, palms, orchids, bromeliads and bananas? These luxuriant plant materials are natural components of the humid tropics but have become valuable in subtropical and even more northerly climates. Can you imagine Hawaiian gardens without mango, avocado, citrus or breadfruit?

Voltaire Moise and I recently returned from a scouting adventure in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The purpose was to check out these islands for a tour in conjunction with the International Palm Society biennial meeting May 25 to 31, 2014 in Miami. Other tours held before and after the meeting will include the Amazon, Cuba and Florida. Tours will focus on palms of these regions but will also include studies of overall plant, animal and human diversity. Protection and education about the value of the ecosystems is a priority. Visit the society’s website for more information, or contact local chapter president Tim Brian at 333-5626 or visit

Trinidad and Tobago are as different as day and night both in their biology and culture. Trinidad’s human population is roughly 40 percent of African origin, 40 percent Indian, and 20 percent “other.” These statistics are misleading though because these cultures mix freely and consider themselves proudly to be “Trini.” Tobago is heavily influenced by folks originally from Africa.

Trinidad is half the size of the Big Island and until 11,000 years ago was attached to South America. The plant and animal diversity of the island is similar to Venezuela. This includes snakes — some of which are poisonous — and hundreds of species of birds and reptiles. Tobago, on the other hand, is more typical of the West Indian islands and has no poisonous snakes. It is about the size of Molokai.

On Trinidad, our main base was the Asa Wright Nature Center which is located in the mountains of the Northern Range. The accommodations are good and one could spend all their time there watching squirrel cuckoos, toucans and parrots fly by while a dozen species of hummingbirds flit to and fro. However, Asa Wright has tours all over the island to swamps, marshes, rain forests, savannas and to the Port of Spain.

On Tobago, our main base was the Blue Waters Inn at Speyside Bay. From there we traveled all over the island, but you could stay there with the ocean lapping at your front door for a restful vacation. Diving, snorkeling and boating to Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary are other options.

For details on this eco-adventure, contact Caligo Tours’ Larry Libowitz at (800) 426-7781 or

These islands are involved in protecting their native ecosystems with over 40 percent of the land in protected forest watershed reserves, but they also recognize the value of non-native species that provide food and shelter for the great variety of animal and bird species.

In Hawaii, we also know the importance of protecting and using our native plants, but let us not forget the role that “alien species” play in our lives. We depend on non-native plants for almost every agricultural commodity we eat, wear or otherwise use. In fact, the Hawaiian civilization could not have flourished without the non-native plants they brought with them.

On our return from the Caribbean, we spent several days in South Florida. I was especially impressed with the use of these tropical plant materials to create the ambiance of the tropics in locations that were originally pine flats and sawgrass marshes. The variety of new plants being used is amazing, and much of the new material made available is because of the efforts of horticultural societies that focus on palms, bamboos and other families of tropicals. Floridians are proud to note they can grow far more species than even California. When it comes to bamboos, I visited several growers in South and Central Florida that sold more than 100 species. Tornello Nursery of Ruskin, Fla., is the largest bamboo nursery in the U.S. and ships all over the world.

Next year’s palm conference will include exploration of the jungles of the Amazon. Last time I was there I saw a tremendous number of plants that I could only identify by family. Many with ornamental qualities have not yet been used in landscaping.

When it comes to bamboos, I saw Guadua bamboo groves for hundreds of miles bordering the Amazon. The growth habit, lead me to suspect there are many forms and more than one species. Some were only about 30 feet tall and some well over 60 feet. Some had very fine foliage and some heavier leaves. One sad note was to see all the logging and clearing going on for short-term profits. Many species may disappear before we even know they existed.

After visiting the Caribbean and the Amazon, I realize we have barely tapped the potential for new plant materials, including bamboo in Hawaii. Our climate has extreme variations and is better suited than either California or Florida to grow these spectacular exotics. Thanks to horticultural societies and members like Peter Berg, Susan Ruskin, Jeff Marcus and others, Hawaii is a “Noah’s Ark” for plants endangered in other parts of our tropical world.

Let’s not forget that we live in a global ecosystem. As climate change becomes more impactful, species on the verge of extinction in some part of this system may survive and even thrive because of the efforts of botanists, naturalists, horticulturists and garden enthusiasts. Plant and protect our native plants, but don’t forget the vast array of exotics that we can enjoy as well.