Our first Botany field trip to the National Botanical Garden was filled with both captivating views and significant information of plant life. Although I was born and raised on Kaua’i, visiting there was a first time experience for me. It was definitely an awesome opportunity not only because of the free admission, but also to be able to learn about the native and tropical beauty in Hawaii. We started the morning with delicious malasadas (brain food), and then proceeded to the entrance of the Botanical Research Center. Juliet Rice Wichman funded the Botanical Research Center. The building was the first on Kaua’i to be LEED certified as a “gold” rated building. In other words, it was built tough enough to withstand strong hurricane winds, in order to protect the rare valuables inside. Another interesting aspect that we learned about the Botanical Research Center was its sustainability and environmental-friendly design.
Some examples include an outer structure of recycled tropical hardwoods, a roof rainwater catchment system, and photovoltaic panels. Although the view of the outside of the building was definitely a pleasing sight to see, the contents inside the building were what made the center so unique. While we were inside the Botanical Research Center, we were able to view a few of the specimen from storage. A couple examples were, Plantanthera holochila: an orchid found in the Alaka’i Swamp endemic to Kaua’i, and Nymphaea which is normally found in the Kawaihau district. We were also shown some samples from other countries like Japan and China. I thought that the concept of being able to view samples gathered from all around the world in the convenience of a half an hour drive to the center was truly amazing. In addition to viewing specimen, we were also able to view the storage process of (orthodox) seeds. I learned that orthodox seeds could be stored and preserved at about a -20 degree temperature, while recalcitrant or tropical seeds would die if stored the same way.
There were a lot of fascinating displays and information that the building had to offer, but I think that my favorite overall was learning about the Coco de Mer. The name translates to “coconut from the sea” and it was believed to have originated from Atlantis because of its “ability” to enhance fertility. Its unusual shape and size (like a butt) was also another interesting aspect that I will never forget. Although there was much laughter brought on by its characteristics, my mind was also very interested as to how it was possible for the largest nut in the world to be able to float and travel on its own by water. In addition to learning that the “Butt Nut” is the largest seed in the world, I also learned that the smallest seeds are from orchids. I also learned that there are only three species of orchids endemic to Hawaii. One example, as mentioned before, is Platanthera holochila. This species of orchid is very rare and (as mentioned before) can be found in the Alaka’i Swamp.
As we learned on our first day in class, “endemic” not only means “native”, but it means that the plant got here without any help from humans and it is found nowhere else in the world. With that knowledge in mind, I can make the assumption that because orchid seeds are so small it probably got to Hawaii either from the wind or brought here by birds. The National Tropical Botanical Garden, originally named the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden, was founded in 1964 by a nonprofit organization called Congressional Charter. Their mission targeted three main parts: research, conservation, and education. I must say, that we definitely fulfilled the educational part of that mission. Our first stop in the garden was the native plants section. The first plant that we learned about was the loulu palm. The genus Pritchardia is the only one native to Hawaii, and there are few species unique to the Northern Islands. Some examples are Pritchardia remota, Prichardia limahuliensis, Pritchardia napaliensis and Pritchardia aylmer-robinsonii.
All these form small seeds and fruit, but over time they evolved and adapted to bigger seeds. Another native plant that I found interesting was the Kokia kauaiensis. I found it interesting because it is in the same family as hibiscus, and because it is endemic to Kaua’i and nowhere else. Listed as a federal endangered species, today there are less than fifty left in the wild. The Kaua’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife has fenced in the population in Paaiki Valley to protect it from predators such as goats and deer. An estimation of over fifty plants of Kokia kauaiensis has been cultivated in the botanical gardens by seed and tissue culture. The plant that I found to be most interesting was the Pili Grass or Heteropogon contortus. The plain physical features of the grass were not what caught my attention at first. As we learned that water induces a drilling effect in the grass, and watching as the grass spiraled from the contact with water, I was amazed! It’s no wonder that animals learned to stay away from Pili Grass. As we moved toward the Allerton section of the garden, we stopped at a group of large bread fruit trees.
We learned that the name for the fig family is Moraceae and that it is very important in the tropics. There are three key features that reveal whether the plant is edible, and they tie in to a class lecture that we had. One example of a feature that is connected to class was the mention of simple leaves alternately arranged. The previous class discussion of the different types of leaves and their arrangement helped me to apply the identification first hand as we looked at the plant. Without the lecture, I would not have been able to understand what “simple leaves alternately arranged” even meant. The other two characteristics to identify an edible Moraceae are whether there is an apical shoot with a covered sheet, and if the plant produces a white milky sap. Bread fruit is important to the tropics because it can be cooked and eaten at any stage of its growth period. It could serve as a miracle plant for third world countries because it not only serves as a food source, but also for many medicinal purposes, building houses, producing clothing, etc. The flower can also be used as a mosquito repellant if it is burned. Out of all the plants that we saw in the Allerton’s part of the garden my favorite was the Ylang Ylang flower or Cananga odorata, because who doesn’t love the fragrance of bubble gum!
Another favorite of mine was the Tiger’s Tail or Mother-In-Law’s Tongue because of its unusual ability to serve as an air purifier. Probably the most important plant that we saw was the Madagascar Periwinkle. Not only does the plant have pretty pink flowers blooming, but it also can be used for many medicinal purposes. In Hawai’i an extract of the boiled plant could be used to stop bleeding. People in India would use the juice from the leaves to treat wasp stings. In Vietnam and Surinamese the leaves and flowers are boiled and taken for diabetes and malaria. Although these are all great examples of the plant’s uses, I think that the most important use of the plant scientists have found is for the treatment of different tumors. The plant contains two important alkaloids, vinblastine and vincristine, that can be used together to aid in the treatment of different ailments. The use of vinblastine and vincristine in combination chemotherapy has resulted in: 80% remission in Hodgkin’s disease, 99% remission in acute lymphocytic leukemia, 80% remission in Wilm’s tumor, 70% remission in gestational choricarcinoma, and 50% remission in Burkett’s lymphoma (http://ntbg.org).
I think that our field trip to the National Tropical Botanical Garden can connect to my life because I am more knowledgeable about some of the plants there. I can use that as an opportunity to bring my siblings who have yet to visit the garden, and teach them about what I learned, so that they too can be more aware of the plant life that we have growing on Kaua’i and throughout the state. Another benefit of having visited the Botanical Research Center and the National Tropical Botanical Garden is that for future projects for this class I can request to use their library as reliable sources. We got to learn about many different plants at the National Botanical Garden and I thought that overall it was very educational and a lot of fun. My reaction to the field trip was that it was a productive way to spend my Saturday. Although that it was an educational field trip, I feel like there were a lot of laughs involved. I really enjoyed seeing all the structures as well, like the “Reading Room” and the fountain near the mermaid. It was definitely a lot of walking around, but it was worth getting to see the different flora and learning more about plants than I ever thought that I could.