A Walk Through The Gardens

A brief history of the Botanical Gardens planted by Don Hemmes and their purpose on campus

Staff Writer Holly S. Trowbridge
Photographs by Leah Wyzykowski

Don Hemmes at the UH Hilo Botaniccal Garden

Have you ever had a rough day? You’ve likely walked past the botanical gardens on campus or at least seen them from a distance, if not taken a stroll through the greenery. Maybe you’ve had a cry during finals or a phone call to mom and dad in the gardens. Or maybe you’ve enjoyed a little morning yoga on the weekends. Little did you know that the botanical gardens at UH Hilo have a full and flush history behind them.

Don Hemmes, a professor emeritus of biology and one of the original planters of the gardens, explains that the gardens have three sections in total: what Hemmes calls “the shade house,” a landscaping garden, and the palm gardens along the dry river canal that runs through campus. Hemmes consistently weeds the area himself.

“I started around 1990, almost 30 years ago. When I first came here, it was to teach botany. I was teaching the life cycle of a pine tree, and one of the students in my class raised her hand and said, ‘What’s a pine tree?’ She had never seen one, so I planted the first pine trees over here, and it just got out of control,” Hemmes shared.

In addition to the general upkeep and weeding, Hemmes manages to make new seed.

“The plants are all separate sexes. There are male and female, so I always try to get ahold of three and cross my fingers that I’ve got a male and a female in order to make some seed. I have some males and females of this very rare species, and I’m pollinating them so that I give the seed away to nurseries,” clarified Hemmes.

Hemmes said that because many students in Hawaiʻi have not traveled to other places, he tries to fill the garden with international species. “A lot of these plants grow in South America; others grow in Africa or Australia. The students had commented many times to me that the most valuable part was to actually see the plant we were talking about. You can look at a picture in a book, but it’s nothing like actually seeing it,” Hemmes said.

Some people question as to why the gardens don’t contain native species, but according to Hemmes, “The best Hawaiian garden is up on the mountain at about 4,000 feet in the native forest, and it’s hard to replicate that. So that’s why I created this with plants that kids aren’t likely to see. I also have brought a lot of students out here just to talk story about what their career plans are and to discuss opportunities in biology. A lot of kids, especially freshmen, haven’t thought about that yet, what they really want to do, or what’s a good area to get into right now. It’s just a nice place with a nice atmosphere to talk in besides the classroom everyday.”

One special quality the botanical gardens hold is its cycads. “There are ten different genera here, and we have one of the largest collections on display, certainly in Hawaiʻi. The other big one is in Foster Botanical Gardens in Honolulu. I have probably about 100 species now. I haven’t counted them; I should do that and write it down,” Hemmes said.

“Some of them are extremely rare and valuable. In the olden days, like 20 years ago, there was a lot of thievery of these plants in Hilo,” Hemmes explained. “Grandma would come home and there would be these big holes in her lawn where there used to be these cycads. We call them sago palms in Hawaiʻi, which is a misnomer: they’re not palms or palm trees at all. Palm trees are flowering plants.”

“Cycads are cone-bearing plants,” he continued. “Gymnosperms are related to conifers, and it’s a separate group. They are used in landscaping and in centerpieces in shopping malls because you don’t always have to be pruning them and there’s very little care involved. They make good landscaping plants.”

Cycads can also be found in other locations around Hilo. “In Liliʻuokalani Park and Gardens, they have a nice collection of sago palms. When there was so much thievery happening, the state legislature made a law and put an artificial value of $2,000 on every plant. So if you steal it, that’s a felony. It’s like robbing a bank,” Hemmes stated.

Hemmes also offered tours of the botanical gardens to those interested, and he said, “HCC folks come every year to take tours, and I offer tours to any group. The Big Island Nursery Association is planning a trip to come tour here. You’d be surprised how many people walk through here.

I’ll be working along the river garden today. To me, it’s a therapy garden, and so I like taking care of it.”