story by David Choo
photos Chris McDonough
I’m standing behind Foster Botanical Garden’s restroom, looking for a legend.
The area that I’m exploring is in an obscure corner of Honolulu’s grand urban garden, pressed up against a perimeter fence. At the moment, it doesn’t sound very gardenlike. Just outside, noontime traffic whooshes by on the H-1 freeway. Overhead, a jumbo jet is making its final approach to the airport. But when I turn back to the garden, I persuade myself that the noise of all the engines is just rushing water or falling rain.
And then I see her—or him, or it: the oldest plumeria tree in the Islands. The ancient lady—I’ll call her Miss Foster for now—certainly looks like she’s getting on in years. Tangled and gnarled, she stands more than twenty feet tall. Healthy clumps of Pele’s hair moss grow from a couple of her branches, as do clusters of bromeliads and orchids. The plantings are probably an attempt to pretty up Miss Foster’s peeling, cracked bark and make her look like she belongs in this verdant forest.
The paperwork on her arrival is long gone, but Miss Foster, a Common Yellow (Plumeria acuminata), was brought from Mexico in 1860 by Dr. William Hillebrand. The German-born Hillebrand was the Hawaiian royal family’s personal doctor, the chief physician at nearby Queen’s Hospital and a renowned botanist. He traveled throughout the Pacific and Asia collecting plants, and in 1853 purchased thirteen acres from Queen Kalama and began planting exotic and native trees. Eventually the land wound up in the city’s hands, and it opened to the public as Foster Botanical Garden in 1930.
To be honest, if I hadn’t known about Miss Foster’s heritage beforehand, I would have walked right by her—in fact, I almost did. She is similar to the hundreds, if not thousands of plumeria trees that I’ve seen over the years. Plumerias are so pervasive, so common, so completely woven into the fabric of Island life that locals like myself, who see them everywhere, tend not to see them at all. We grew up with the plumeria: It was the first flower we learned to identify by sight and smell, the first one that we drew as children, the first that we strung into lei. The tree is easy to plant—just stick a cutting into the ground and you’re on your way—and it requires little care once it is established. It’s sad but true, I think: These trees are too common and too accommodating to win and sustain our love.
But after finding Miss Foster, I start to see plumerias again—everywhere. I take a meandering drive home and see golden-hearted Common Yellows in Liliha and snow-white Singapores in Manoa. In Kapahulu, there is a multicolored Lei Rainbow peeking over a chain-link fence, and in Kaimuki, one of O‘ahu’s plumeria hot spots, I catch a glimpse of the blood-red Hilo Beauty, the hot pink Royal Hawaiian and many, many others.
As I pull into my driveway and gaze at my own pair of fifty-year-old, twenty-five-foot-tall trees, I realize that after more than a decade of living in my grandparents’ house—first as a renter, now as an owner—I’ve never stopped and smelled my plumerias.