Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

On the Big Island of Hawaii there is an example of the power of an individual to imagine and then create something beautiful and beneficial for many other people. It is Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden (HTPG), the creation of Dan J. Lutkenhouse (1921-2007).

In 1977, Dan was the owner of a trucking business in San Francisco. In June 1977, Dan and his wife Pauline R. Lutkenhouse (1928-2017) visited the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. They were shown the property on Onomea Bay, seven miles (11 km) northeast of Hilo, that has since become Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

Dan and Pauline were captivated by the seclusion and beauty of the place. The area receives annual rainfall averaging 129 inches (3281 mm), creating a tropical jungle environment. They decided to buy a 17-acre (42 ha) parcel that descends to the ocean at Onomea Bay.

Oneoma Bay at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

When the Lutkenhouses acquired the property, it was overgrown and virtually impenetrable, choked with wild invasive trees, weed and thorn thickets, and strangling vines.

Dan decided to establish a botanical garden to preserve the valley and its beauty forever. In order to devote himself full time to the development of the Garden, Dan sold the trucking business. Dan and Pauline moved to a home near the valley, where they lived the rest of their lives.

Every day for eight years, Pauline would pack Dan a brown bag lunch and he would disappear into the jungle, returning at night dirty and tired, but happy. During that time Dan, his assistant Terry Takiue, and two helpers worked with cane knives, sickles, picks, shovels, and a chain saw clearing paths through the jungle.

Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden

All the work was done by hand to avoid disturbing the natural environment or destroying valuable plants and tree roots. The men kept a slow and easy pace, so as not to suffer heat stroke or dehydration in the steamy jungle.

Trails were hewn from hard lava rock with picks and shovels. To keep the soil from compacting and the natural beauty from being destroyed, no tractors were used; excess rock was removed and gravel brought in by wheelbarrow. Dan followed the contours of the land in designing the Garden trails, which curve and wind their way through the jungle. Gradually, secret landscapes revealed themselves. It took years of carefully clearing the jungle before the discovery of the crown jewel of the Garden—a three-tiered waterfall said to be the most beautiful in all Hawaii.

Lily Lake

The development work continued seven days a week until the Garden opened to the public in 1984. Thereafter, for another ten years Dan and Pauline traveled the world collecting additional plants for the Garden from tropical jungles around the world. Dan chose the location of every plant and tree introduced to the Garden.

Dan and Pauline invested $2 million of their own funds to acquire and develop the property. To protect the Garden site, Dan and Pauline established a nonprofit charitable corporation. Over time the original 17-acre property was expanded to sixty acres. In 1995 they conveyed the land to the corporation. They made legal arrangements to assure that the land would never be sold or commercially developed. Dan said, “It’s too precious a valley to be developed. We’re preserving the valley so that mankind can enjoy it forever. I believe that we should all try to leave the world a better place than we found it.”

The Garden has been described as the most beautiful accessible tropical jungle garden in the world.

Entrance to the Garden

The Garden takes no funding from any political governance entity. Its continued operation is financed entirely by admission fees and donations. As of 2020 the Garden had 17 full-time employees and had welcomed more than 700,000 visitors.

To visit the Garden’s website, click here.

The world famous Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, were created in a similar manner, by members of the family of Jenny Butchart who had previously used the property as a quarry. For the story of the creation of the Butchart Gardens, click here.

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