Native Intelligence: Kaua`i

The 450-million-year Walk

Story by Liza Simon. Photos by Paul Myers.

The beginning steps on the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s new eight-hundred-foot-long Biodiversity Trail put you inside a shady tunnel filled with simple mosses—the first plants to emerge from water onto land 450 million years ago. A few more steps take you forward some hundred million years, into a patch of ferns. These shoot upwards with flair but have no seeds or flowers, for they, too, are vestiges of a far simpler biology. But soon the trail is lined by cycads, the great innovators from the era of dinosaurs: Cycads were the first plants to sport seedpods.

The longer you stroll, the richer the texture, color and form. Fleshier and flashier fruits and flowers spring up on the compressed evolutionary path. Accompanying signage reminds us that these plants aren’t only dazzlers but a source of life-giving processes. Insects, birds, reptiles, mammals: Every creature on the planet is woven into the plant kingdom’s web of life, and that web’s ever-increasing intricacy has led to an astonishing degree of biological diversity —or “biodiversity” for short.

At the nineteenth-century mark on the Biodiversity Trail, twisted machinery appears. Salvaged from Kaua‘i’s now-shuttered Kōloa Sugar Mill and sculpted by Kaua‘i artist Wayne Zebzda, it marks the impact of the Industrial Age. Interpretive exhibits note that man has pushed many plants to the brink of extinction or beyond. But while the trail raises the alarm, it doesn’t leave the story there. It proceeds through displays of projects that have done the Earth a good turn by, for example, removing invasive species. The idea, explains NTBG director Chipper Wichman, is to encourage people to learn about and connect to conservation research and programs that are making a positive difference.

At the trail’s end the plants captivate with a magnificent parting shot. There are rows of hybrid hibiscuses in kaleidoscopic colors, and there is a nook that frames “Darwin’s orchid,” a flower so named because the great scientist recognized that its long spur was likely the perfect match for the equally long feeding tube of its pollinator—the trail’s final homage to the relationships that have allowed the Earth’s species to evolve and survive together.

Story by Liza Simon. Photos by Paul Myers