Veteran gardener and newspaper columnist Heidi Bornhorst strides across the sunny, breezy lawns of Hale Koa in Waikiki wearing long pants, boots and a loose yellow silky shirt. Her thick hair is gathered up into a bright blue baseball cap. For the past 13 years, she has served as landscape director at Hale Koa (aka Fort DeRussy), the US military reservation covering 72 park-like acres sandwiched between the high-rises of Waikiki proper and the high-rises of Kalia.
“See this grove? These are at least 80 years old,” she says, looking up and admiring her pride and joy: a loosely arranged cluster of about twenty healthy-looking coconuts that hula up high into the sky at the busy intersection of Ala Moana Boulevard and Kalakaua Avenue.
“It’s called the Maluhia grove, which means peace,” she says as the trees rustle overhead.
“You can tell that they grew up from nuts sitting on this ground—see how the bases are wide, how they swell and curve out of the ground? That’s how we used to plant ’em, from nuts. Now everyone wants instant, so they just transplant. I can always tell which cocos grew in place.”
Bornhorst has a firm set of rules she follows for the 1,000 “cocos” (as she calls them) in her care: Water regularly. Minimize trimming and use experienced tree-trimmers, preferably the same ones over time.
“When cocos are young and short, go ahead and let ’em flower and set fruit,” she says. “They’re like humans—it takes about nine months to get a mature nut, like being hapai [pregnant]. But it also takes a lot to produce nuts, so they’re healthier and stronger, too.”
We talk about the mysteries that remain about coconuts—their ability to self-repair most wounds, their subtle genetic differences and anomalies, and the actual age the trees can attain.
She leads me to another little grove, this one at the entrance to the big, beachfront Hale Koa Hotel. There, right next to the lobby ramp, is a concrete planter up against the side of the building, offering a glimpse of paradise: A thicket of youngish, stocky coconut trees bearing full loads of glowing green and gold nuts, droopy fronds, spathes and spadix. The scene shocks me, and I stare. I tell her it reminds me of the feral trees I’ve seen along the sleepy, spring-fed backshores of the South Kona coast, at Honomalino or Ho‘okena.
“Or Keomuku, on the backside of Lana‘i,” she suggests.
She confesses to a few skirmishes with management about letting these trees go native, even though they’re safely away from the public behind the planter wall.
Jet-lagged hotel guests savor the sight, she says. Kids want to pick the nuts and send them home. Plus, her budget is in better shape without the trimming cost.
“Isn’t this a Hawaiian thing?” she asks as I continue to gawk. “It’s like you’re walking through old Hawai‘i.”
No, it’s 2007, but here at a Waikiki hotel, the sympathetic impulse to liberate some of Hawai‘i’s coconut trees has borne fruit.
Back in Wai‘anae, Daniel Anthony reports that he’s toying with a new plan to get some new groves started. This time, he says he’ll do it more strategically, by stirring up some competitive Island spirit and lobbying each of the state’s four counties to sponsor their own groves.
“I want to see who does it first,” he says. HH