story by Janice Crowl
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
A shawl of mist hugs the emerald shoulders of the Ko‘olau range as I wend my way into the bosom of Manoa Valley. I pass quiet residences with manicured lawns, Japanese-style gardens. Then the road plunges into dense, luxuriant rainforest; Waikïkï is only 5 miles away, but I feel as though I’ve been transported to some pristine jungle island. In a way, I have. Some of Jurassic Park III, Tears of the Sun and the hit TV series Lost was shot here. The weathered wooden sign for Lyon Arboretum is barely distinguishable from the foliage, as if it grew there on its own, nurtured by the rich soil and ample rain of Manoa Valley.
Today the gate is open, but a few years ago it was locked, and Lyon Arboretum was in crisis. When it closed for six months in 2004 due to health and safety violations, “there was a hiccup in the botanical world,” says Dr. Christopher Dunn, the arboretum’s current director. Dunn was executive director for research programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden when the news came that the University of Hawai‘i was looking for a new director for Lyon Arboretum. The position piqued the interest of his wife, Mei-Ran, who is from Taiwan. She mused about the possibility of being closer to home and becoming part of Hawai‘i’s large Asian community, and, being a gardener, she liked the idea of gardening year-round. For Dunn, the challenge of rescuing Lyon Arboretum, a 193-acre tropical rainforest and botanical garden, was the draw. “I see it as a fixerupper,” he says. “There’s capacity to make an impact, to do something meaningful versus tweaking and retooling.”
Since Dunn took over in May 2007, the 90-year-old arboretum has come back from near-extinction. This year, a $3 million renovation project remedied serious defects and made the gardens more accessible to the handicapped. Dunn hopes the improvements will help get additional funding to maintain the gardens, which showcase some of the best collections in the world of palms, heliconias, gingers, native Hawaiian plants and other botanical treasures. But Dunn has a larger vision for the future of the arboretum as a world-class ecology research center committed to preserving the ethnobotany of the Pacific region.