If Bo’s place is like a painting by Mondrian, Karel’s place is a Pollock. It is a carnival, a wild celebration of color, texture, shape. Like Jeff, like Jan, like Bo, Karel talks of his plants with the affection, concern and pride of a parent. But he doesn’t grow only palms. He also shows me what he calls the biggest bromeliad I will ever see, a massive, mottled, rare creature called Vriesea hieroglyphica; one of the rarest philodendrons in the world, Philodendron spiritus-sancti; and the largest-growing cycad on earth, Encephalartos laurentianus. “How about this one?” he says pointing to a vibrant plant. “It was just discovered last year in Ecuador.” He walks a few steps, takes hold of a leaf with an improbably familiar form. “How do you like the shape of this one? I call it the Mickey Mouse.”
Karel is laconic, with a humor far drier than the Hilo day, and a fondness for Camel cigarettes. He is an illustrator by trade, draws everything from National Geographic mise-en-scenes to Smucker’s jam labels. He grew up in Prague, was a friend of Vaclav Havel and was forced to leave Czechoslovakia while it was still under Soviet control. He was always a collector—fish, crocodiles, you name it—though he doesn’t want to talk about that—or his work or himself. It is the plants only that he wants to discuss—and those he can talk of for hours. He shows me his palms, rare ones from Madagascar to Malaysia, but here at Karel’s they are in a symbiotic relationship with a myriad of other plants: Their trunks are covered with vines, creepers, flowers. Karel likes it that way. “To me,” he says, “a palm garden is a frame to put the jewelry on.”
You'll see palms everywhere around Hilo: in the gulches, by the bay, along the highway. But if you want to see the best public collection in town, head to the Pana‘ewa Zoo—where you even get a white tiger in the deal. I tour the collection with Karen Piercy and her husband, Dean; Karen, remember, is the one who ambushed Alan that fateful night, a former HIPS president who arrived in Hilo from Northern California in 1990 knowing next to nothing about palms. “Dean and I went to a slide show [at HIPS] that just knocked our eyes out,” Karen remembers. “All of the people there were so
enthusiastic. Of all the little groups we visited, the palm society was the one that was most alive.”
True to form, Karen and Dean are now obsessed and have over 400 species of palms growing at home. They also help care for the zoo’s palm collection, HIPS’ biggest civic project. Walking through it, we see an ivory nut palm, a teddy bear palm, a pygmy date palm, a palm with a black crown shaft, a palm with a wild dreadlocked inflorescence, a palm covered in spikes, foxtail palms, sealing wax palms and more and more. Occasionally the trees and beasts match up: By the Thai tortoises, there are palms from Southeast Asia; by the lemurs, palms from Madagascar. The exoticism of the collection is only furthered by the squawks and grunts of the animals, the wandering peacocks and a hidden improbability: the fact that this all exists on dense basalt lava rock. To even dig the holes for the trees required a diamond-bit drill mounted on a truck. “When it would hit rock,” Karen remembers, “the whole truck would jump.”
So why do it?