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Vol. 17, no. 3
June/July 2014

 

Twilight in the Garden 
 

Story by Michael Shapiro
Photo by Elyse Butler & Matt Mallams  

Hemmed by highways and buildings in the heart of Honolulu is a fourteen-acre national treasure. Its first trees were planted in 1853 by a German botanist who’d leased the land from Queen Kalama, and today it is the oldest botanical garden in the United States, with thousands of exotic and rare tropical trees, orchids, bromeliads, gingers and more. Foster Botanical Garden—named for Mary Foster, who bequeathed the garden to Honolulu with the condition that the city “forever keep and properly maintain” it as a public park—is home to twenty-five of the one hundred or so designated exceptional trees in Honolulu, including a clone of the very tree under which the Buddha sat when he achieved enlightenment.

But, says Joyce Spoehr, not enough people were taking advantage of the wealth. As the garden’s recreational specialist, it’s Spoehr’s job to get people into the garden. Every summer since 1968 the garden had held its signature event, Midsummer Night’s Gleam, where visitors could stroll after dark along enchanting candlelit pathways. There might have been a couple of other attractions, like ice sculptures or kukui-nut torches, but that was pretty much it. Spoehr turned Gleam from a “passive thing” into a “three-ring circus,” she says. “Now we have bagpipers, African drummers, belly dancers, lion dancers …” She nearly runs out of breath before adding, “and kids activities like painting, nature craft, balloon making, plant giveaways.”

Spoehr didn’t stop there. She added a free Twilight Summer concert series on Thursday evenings throughout June and July, with acts like Celtic Pipes & Drums of Hawaii, the Royal Hawaiian Band Glee Club, Carmen Haugen’s Quartet and various military bands. “It’s good pau hana time to just relax and have a picnic,” says Spoehr. One highlight of the summer series is the Teddy Bear Picnic (July 31 this year), where kids bring their stuffed animals for a picnic and the band plays teddy bear-themed songs. Cute factor: Mach ten.

Four thousand people attended last year’s Gleam. This year’s, on July 19, starts at 4 p.m.; around dusk, Boy Scout volunteers begin lighting the 2,500 candles that will transform Mary’s garden into a fairy grove. “The trees, the silhouettes,” says Spoehr, “it’s nice to share this with people at night.”

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