Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook Hi


Tucked away in Captain Cook, twelve miles south of Kailua-Kona, Amy B.H. Greenwell’s garden legacy preserves her devotion to Hawaiian botany, archeology, and culture.

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Over 200 native plant species

A Bit About The Garden

This 15 acre botanical garden features over 200 species of “pre-Cookian” plants, which include endemic, indigenous, and Polynesian introduced flora. These include the most culturally significant plants, such as taro and banana, as well as scores of rare and endangered species, such as the beautiful kōki’o.

The undisturbed archeological remains that cover 5 acres of the garden transport you back to an ancient time when the Hawaiians had 54 square miles of terraced and walled agriculture within the Kona district. As you pass through the garden you will traverse various ecological habitats, reflecting costal, dry forests, agricultural and wet forest zones. The Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden is dedicated to conserve and support native plant resources and the associated traditional land use and cultural practices. Many kinds of traditional and modern activities and research are being perpetuated here. Set amongst the most intact remnants of the Kona Field System, the Garden includes agricultural, residential and sacred sites. The historic Pa‘ikapahu Heiau is in a parcel near the main Garden.

Our History

Kona Field System Established

Establishment of the Kona Field System by Native Hawaiians, featuring large stone archaeological features around which a thriving upland agricultural system developed to feed a population comparable to that living on the Big Island today.

Bishop Museum

The Garden bequeathed by Amy Greenwell to Bishop Museum for the purpose of conserving an example of the historic Kona Field System and curating a collection of native (endemic and indigenous) and Polynesian-introduced “canoe” plants used for food, fuel, fiber and medicines.

Public Opening

After a number of archeological studies and several years of planting and curating a unique collection of native, rare, endangered and useful Hawaiian plants, Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden opened to the public, becoming a beloved landmark for knowledge sharing, cultural activities and nature appreciation.

Community Ownership

After more than 30 years as part of Bishop Museum, the Garden devolved to community ownership, marking a new chapter in a rich history starting with several phases of agricultural production and now transitioning to a new existence as an anchor of biocultural knowledge sharing and a source of enjoyment for local residents, students and visitors for years to come.

Amy Greenwell illustration in her youth
Amy Greenwell illustration in her youth
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A History of Stewardship

Amy Greenwell

If Amy Greenwell were alive today, she would be 101 years old. We would rejoice to have her with us here in Kona – an intelligent, attractive and vivacious elderly female. She still might be willing to dance an impromptu hula if the music seemed just right, as it obviously did back in 1960. How appropriate the shutter snapped just as her fingers formed buds of some sweet smelling flower, for flowers were always on Amy's mind. However, if she were still pruning rose bushes at her Captain Cook residence, Bishop Museum's Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden would not exist!

Amy passed away in 1974 at the age of 54. She died of multiple myeloma, a rare cancer, but one Amy knew well because her own father, Arthur Leonard Greenwell, died from it in 1951. Kona's beloved Hawaiian garden is Amy's baby, conceived in her heart and soul when she realized she was going to die before her time.

A life building to the garden

Amy's Life

Her paternal grandfather was Henry Nicholas Greenwell, a pioneering Englishman who arrived in the Sandwich Islands in 1850 and put down roots at Kalukalu, Kona Historical Society's present headquarters. He cultivated an orange grove, planted fields of corn and pumpkins, and promoted Kona's coffee crop. He established a far flung ranching enterprise based on wool from sheep and beef and butter from cattle. His wife Elizabeth never spent a dull moment, occupied from dawn to dusk with their ten children and running her husband's general merchandise store. Among Henry's many land purchases, that of the ahupua’a of Kealakekua in 1881 from missionary son John D. Paris, Jr., was his largest. Second son Arthur inherited Kealakekua after his father’s death in 1891.

In 1912, Arthur, at the age of 40, married Miss Beatrice Hunt Holdsworth of Honolulu. They honeymooned in Europe. Mrs. Arthur Greenwell was extremely stylish with very striking dark good looks. Although she had married a Kona rancher, she was determined to raise her children in Honolulu. Arthur built her a home on 'Uala ka'a Street (Rolling sweet potato Street) near Punahou School on O'ahu, but during the summers and school holidays, the family hopped on board the inter-island steamer Humu'ula to gather at their Kona residence built above Kealakekua Bay.

Amy’s upbringing was thus two sided: from her father she learned to respect and love Kona, his knowledge gained from a lifetime spent in the saddle, riding across verdant forests and open lava fields from Hualalai to Kealakekua Bay. Her father truly was a kama`aina, fluent in Hawaiian and English, and conversant in Portuguese. Her mother Beatrice instilled in her only surviving daughter a love of art, world travel, books and reading. Both parents shared a fondness for gardens, history and dogs. Amy blossomed into a talented young woman with a real passion for plants and archaeology. She worked for years with botanist Dr. Otto Degener compiling Book 5 of his Flora Hawaiiensis. As he wrote in his introduction in 1957:

Miss Amy B.H. Greenwell, authority on matters Hawaiian, collaborated first efficiently at the New York Botanical Garden and later at the Bishop Museum in producing this volume. Her very active co-authorship, recorded for each pertinent sheet with her signature, unfortunately ended upon her removal of residence from Honolulu, Island of Oahu, to Capt. Cook, Island of Hawaii.

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Amy Greenwell illustration in her youth
Amy Greenwell illustration in her youth

Indeed. Amy left Honolulu in the mid-1950s, returned to Kona and built a small home above Mamalahoa Highway in the ahupua`a of Kealakekua, surrounded by good friends and family, pugs and plants. Her love of archaeology took her places a young single woman rarely ventured. In 1953, she hiked to Mauna Kea's Adze Quarry, long before any road existed to reach that 12,000 foot lofty cave, and spent the night there in the company of friendly physicians. While camping near Ka Lae, a necessary bathroom break to escape the company of male archaeologists from Bishop Museum resulted in discovery of a major cache of early Hawaiian fish hooks buried in the sand. Unafraid of adventure, Amy fearlessly clambered into innumerable lava tubes, sponges sewn onto the knees of her trousers to protect her shins from jagged `a`a. Her fascination with unusual native plants kept her busy in amongst her garden's historic stone walls, snipping cuttings and harvesting seeds she willingly shared with one and all.

Amy never married. Her older brother Sherwood lived nearby with his wife and family and their sibling relationship remained close and affectionate. Her decision to leave her home and some adjoining property to Bishop Museum after her death to create a Hawaiian ethnobotanical garden was arranged with Sherwood’s promise of assistance. Encouragement for this inspired legacy came from Bishop Museum's own Dr. Kenneth Emory who visited Amy daily at Queen's Hospital in Honolulu as her illness worsened, never without a sweet smelling lei of pua kenikeni in his hands. An amateur scientist to the end, Amy left her body to the University of Hawaii for research purposes. After her death, her family placed a bronze plaque inscribed with her name within a fenced enclosure protecting a grove of native trees high on the slopes of Mauna Loa, a fitting tribute to her memory.

Thanks to the work of many fine botanists and innumerable helping hands, both paid and volunteer, Amy’s dream flourished. Her bequest grew to become a recognized Kona landmark, a living cultural treasure, and an invaluable resource for the entire state. Amy’s garden is planted in exactly the right place; a cornerstone of Kamehameha's agricultural kingdom in the historic ahupua'a of Kealakekua. The plants are flourishing, their roots firmly anchored in Kona soil tilled by generations of Kona families. The baby has grown up to be a fine reflection of its mother – generous, smiling and beautiful.

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What is ethnobotany?


Rather than studying the plants, which is botany, or a culture, which is ethnology, ethnobotany looks at the plant lore, uses, and agricultural customs of a culture. An ethnobotanist examines the role a plant plays within a society by looking at its functions as a food source, a natural resource, or a medicine as well as examining the significance a plant hold in the religion and mythology of a people.

Native Plants Conservation

Hawai‘i is one of the most geographically isolated places on the planet, being over 2,000 miles from a continental landmass and nearly 1,000 miles from even the tiniest of islands. It was therefore very difficult for the original plant and animals inhabitants to colonize the islands and few actually made it. Before Hawaiians arrived in the islands the only animals present were birds, insects, a couple small reptiles, and one mammal – the hoary bat. The birds brought with them most of the flowering plants and the rest were carried over by the wind along with the spores of ferns and fungi. Scientists estimate that a new species arrived in Hawai‘i once every 20,000 to 50,000 years.

Successful plant immigrants found the islands a fertile land to occupy, with a moderate climate and an abundant rainfall. There were no grazing animals and few insects or pests in addition to minimal competition for sunlight and nutrients. These colonizing species rapidly spread out over their new home.

As these plants spread out across the islands they began to change, slowly forming new species. Several influences facilitated these changes. First of all their new habitat was very different from their old ones. The absence of grazing animals, for instance, caused many plant species to become more docile by losing their thorns and toxins. The absence of bees to pollinate some plants caused the plants to change in order to attract other animals such as birds or fruit flies.

There was also the ecological variability of Hawai‘i, which contains virtually every ecological zone on the planet. Therefore a plant could land and inhabit a dry plains area, and as it spread out it found itself within a rainforest and had to adapt accordingly. There was also the genetic isolation of species. If only a few individuals accomplished the journey to Hawai‘i the genetic pool is very small and inbreeding is inevitable. In addition there was further isolation within the chain, such as the isolation between islands or even the isolation between the steep mountain ridges separating the valleys.

Due to these factors the original species the arrived in Hawai‘i became completely new and unique species. These species are known as endemic, meaning they are found here and no where else in the world. Hawai‘i has the highest rate of endemism in the world, over 90%. While this means our species are original, it also means they are vulnerable because if they disappear from Hawai’i, they are extinct. Although Hawai‘i constitutes less than 1% of the United States land mass, it posts the most threatened, endangered, and extinct species.

Many of these plants species are conserved and displayed here at the garden. These species are propagated both for conservation projects that reintroduce them into the wild and also for private consumption. That’s right, you can buy endangered Hawaiian plants at our garden for your private landscaping desires.

Kona Field System

Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden is located within the ahupua’a, or traditional land division encompassing costal and mountain resources, of Kealakekua. Kealakekua, which mean “the path of the gods,” is a culturally and historically significant area.

Near the shoreline one would find coconut trees and small patches of ‘uala, or sweet potato, intermittedly dispersed among the various cooking, storage, and living facilities. It was here near the seashore where majority of the craft work was done such as beating bark cloth, weaving, and carving as well ocean activities such as fishing and gathering seaweed and other marine resources.

As we head mauka, or towards the mountain, from the coast we cross the lowland dry plains, known as kula lands. These lands still suffer from salt spray and very arid conditions, allowing few useful plants to grow in this zone. Typically wauke, or paper mulberry, from which Hawaiians made their bark cloth, was grown in this area, which persisted until about 500 feet elevation.

Above these wauke plantations began the ‘ulu, or breadfruit, groves for which the traditional zone, kalu’ulu, derives its name. These large trees provided considerable amount of food and also provided shade and captured moisture to house other sub-canopy crops. The ‘ulu groves typically extended to about 1,000 feet elevation, at which point the rain line would allow for more intensive agriculture.

The major agricultural zone, known as ‘āpa‘a, began with the rain at about 1,000 feet and extended up to about 3,000 feet. This is the zone in which Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden is located as well as the archeological remains known as the Kona Field System.

While majority of the Hawaiian agricultural systems utilized terraces, the Kona Field Systems, possibly because this area is relatively so dry when compared to the rest of the state, developed an original system consisting of long rock walls, known as kua’iwi, that ran parallel to the slope of the mountain. In between these divisions was heavily planted with the major food crops of kalo, or taro, and ‘uala, using techniques such as mounding and mulching to conserve the scarce water as much as possible. Along the walls, which doubled as paths through the plantations, were planted other significant crops, namely kō, or sugar cane, and kī, or ti leaf. Along the upper boundary of this zone we would find less significant crops such as mai’a, or banana, and uhi, or yams.

Mauka of the ‘āpa‘a zone began the wao akua, or realm of the gods. This was the dense forest that was unaltered by the Hawaiians. Several resources were collected from this area including the Hawaiian honeycreepers, collected for their feathers, and koa (Acacia koa), which was felled as lumber for canoes.