UH Hilo students break ground for Native Forest Māla on campus

The ambitious student leaders have brought a renewed sense of life to the garden with 25 new species donated and planted within just a few weeks.

Student working in the garden.
Graduate student Kalena Shiroma during a recent Work Day to create a Native Forest Māla on the campus of UH Hilo. (Courtesy photo)

By Jordan Hemmerly.

More than 30 student volunteers have begun the process of restoring and expanding the garden in the life sciences quad at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The area is being transformed into a Native Forest Māla (garden).

Ty plants keiki sprouts in garden. Rock and shovel in foreground.
Marine science major Ty Shimabukuro at work in the envisioned Native Forest Māla, UH Hilo. (Courtesy photo)

The ambitious student leaders have brought a renewed sense of life to the garden with 25 new species donated and planted within just a few weeks.

Ty Shimabukuro, a marine science major from O‘ahu, donated ‘ohe mauka, wiliwili, naio papa, māmane, ‘ohai, ‘ōhi‘a, ‘ena‘ena, alahe‘e, lama, delissea, ‘ōpelu, ‘ākia, and maiapilo to the project.

“The majority of these plants only grow here, and I like growing plants, so I’m glad I found a lot of people who also enjoy meeting to learn from these kinds of shared experiences,” he says. “I’m happy to have skills, things, and time that can be shared with the community.”

Professor of Biology Pat Hart is overseeing the project.

“It’s great to see new life and energy going into the garden,” says Hart. “For a long time, we’ve had a vision for creating a small native wet forest right here on campus where students can comfortably study surrounded by native trees. My favorite part has been seeing students be so enthusiastic about planting native plants.”

Aerial map of UH Hilo campus with icons for each garden.
There are multiple gardens across the UH Hilo campus. Anyone interested in these projects can visit the online Gardens at UH Hilo map for more information. Above, campus gardens are noted with markers; the Life Sciences Native Forest Māla (red marker) is located in the life sciences quad.

The life sciences quad is well-known for its large garden bed that features a massive endemic loulu tree planted by Professor Emeritus Don Hemmes. Hemmes, who founded and continues to maintain the campus Botanical Gardens that feature a large collection of bromeliads, has made himself available as a consultant to those who are transforming the quad.

Student club collaboration

A newly registered independent student organization called the Creature Keeper Club is working on the project. The group’s mission is to undertake a variety of student-inclusive research programs and campus improvement projects that engage with living species. The club, which now touts over 35 members and three primary research projects, is aiming to fund name plaques for each plant in the garden, as well as covered seating with charging stations for students who traverse the māla.

Group stands in the mala for photo.
Members of two registered student organizations—the Creature Keeper Club and the Kaiameaola Club—are working together to restore the Native Forest Māla. Above, a work day crew gathers for photo. Front row from left: Raven Brazee, Logan Rivas, Andrew Tabaque, Josephine Tupu, and Nai’a Odachi. Second row: Ty Shimabukuro, Jordan Hemmerly, Anna Ezzy, Christian Colo, Kalena Shiroma, and Kona Dancil. Back row: Avery Bryce, Pat Hart, and Brian Rule. (Courtesy photo)

The Creature Keeper Club is in partnership with the Kaiameaola Club, another student organization based at the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, to work together to renovate and plant the māla. The collaborative team hopes to continue shifting the garden’s focus toward native plants that can be used as an example for responsible landscaping, conservation, and reforestation, while bringing the māla in line with State House Bill 876.

Anna Ezzy pictured.
Anna Ezzy (File photo)

Bill 876 seeks to establish specifically designated native pollinator habitat gardens on UH Hilo and UH Mānoa campuses to help ensure the future survival of native pollinator species like the Hawaiian yellow-faced bee. The bill is authored by environmental lawyer Leslie Cole-Brooks, a regular guest lecturer at the UH Hilo graduate program who previously worked with UH researchers to amend Hawai‘i County Property Tax Code to promote the preservation of native forests.

Anna Ezzy, a member of the Kaiameaola Club, says the Native Forest Māla is important to improving biodiversity on campus and supporting native pollinators.

“Native pollinators are crucial to fostering Hawaiʻi’s biodiversity which feeds us, sustains our cultures and supports healthy air, land and water,” says Ezzy. “I hope that the native forest māla will demonstrate for visitors how to support and sustain native plant populations in their own backyards, and have an exponential effect on native pollinator habitat size throughout (the island).”

More workdays ahead, come volunteer!

At the next student-hosted workday in the māla, the group will be planting donations from Three Mountain Alliance, a local partnership focusing on watershed protection. The māla work is in sync with the nonprofit’s mission to provide opportunities for people to form pilina (connections) to the ʻāina (land) through meaningful experiences.

There are multiple gardening and restoration efforts across the UH Hilo campus. Anyone interested in these projects can visit the online Gardens at UH Hilo map for more information. Those interested in donating native plants or helping to fund the Native Forest Māla should email biology department student assistant Jordan Hemmerly at hemmerly@hawaii.edu for more information.

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Story by Jordan Hemmerly, a UH Hilo marine science major and student assistant in the biology department. She co-founded and provides leadership for the Creature Keepers Club, established in the summer of 2023.

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