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The tropical world in our Hawaiian gardens

<p>Photo by VOLTAIRE MOISE</p><p>Native silver thatch palm is seen at Speyside Bay, Tobago</p>

What would a tropical garden be without bamboos, palms, orchids, bromeliads and the banana family?

These luxuriant plant materials are a natural component of the humid tropics, but have become a valuable element in subtropical and even more northerly climates. Can you imagine Hawaiian gardens without mango, avocado, citrus or breadfruit?

Voltaire Moise and I just 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 25-31, 2014, in Miami, Fla. Other tours held before and after the meeting will include the Amazon, Cuba and all around Florida. The focus will be on palms of these regions but also will include studies of the overall plant, animal and human diversity. Protection and education about the value of the ecosystems is also a priority.

For information on the International Palm Society and its efforts, check out it’s website. You can also contact our local chapter by calling Tim Brian, president at 333-5626. The website is

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 including Near Eastern and Chinese. These statistics are misleading though because these cultures mix freely and consider themselves proudly to be “Trini.” The feeling of Trinidad to a visitor is that the cultural mix is weighted toward Indian.

Some of the best Indian food I have eaten was there.

Tobago is heavily influenced by folks originally from Africa.

Trinidad is half the size of the Big Island, and up until 11,000 years ago, was attached to South America, so the plant and animal diversity of the island is similar to what is today 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 the 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, rainforests, savannahs and even to visit the wildlife of 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 just stay there with the ocean lapping at your front door for a restful vacation. Diving, snorkeling and boating to Little Tobago Bird Sanctuary are also on the venue.

If you want to check out details on this eco adventure, contact Larry Libowitz at Caligo Tours at 1-800-426-7781 or

These islands are very involved in protecting their native ecosystems with more than 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.

Like Trinidad, we in Hawaii know how important it is that we protect and utilize our native plants, but let us not forget the role that so called 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 due to the efforts of horticultural societies that focus on palms, bamboos and other families of tropicals.

For example, there are hundreds of species of palms that have been discovered and are now grown in South Florida. Floridians are proud to note that 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 over a hundred 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 had ornamental qualities and have not been utilized in landscaping.

When it comes to bamboos, I saw Guadua bamboo groves for hundreds of miles bordering the Amazon. The growth habits, 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 Amazona, I realize, we have barely tapped the potential for new plant materials, including bamboo in Hawaii. Our climate has the extreme variations and much 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 many others too numerous to mention here, 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.

This information is supplied by the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.


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