By Léo Azambuja
Fifty years ago, a Congressional Charter created one of the most important tropical botanical gardens in the planet — and the only national tropical garden in the United States.
“We’ve gone from being a dream in some people’s minds to actually being on the ground and really having an impact,” National Tropical Botanical Garden CEO Chipper Wichman said.
Since the 1964 Congressional Charter, more than 100 new species of plants have been discovered, classified and preserved through conservation programs. Countless other species have been safeguarded against extinction through a seed-freezing program.
McBryde Garden, NTBG’s first property, started in 1970 on a 171-acre site in Lawa‘i. It sits right below the nonprofit’s national headquarters.
Over the course of several decades, NTBG grew to comprise five gardens — including McBryde, Allerton and Limahuli on Kaua‘i, one on Maui and another in Florida — and five preserves, for a total of 10 properties occupying 2,000 acres.
Despite being created by Congress, the nonprofit NTBG is not part of the federal government. All its properties were gifts — with the exception of Allerton, which they only manage — and they have thrived mainly because of private donations amounting to more than $200 million.
“That’s what our founders wanted, they did not want to be funded by the government,” Wichman said. “Once you are funded by the federal government, that comes with all kinds of strings … Everything we have accomplished has been done with private, individual, philanthropic support.”
Today, NTBG probably has the world’s largest collection of federally endangered plants, according to Wichman. In McBryde alone, there are probably more endangered species per square foot than in any other place in the planet, he said.
A horticulturist, Wichman joined the organization 38 years ago, encouraged by his late grandmother, Juliet Rice Wichman. Limahuli Garden on Kaua‘i’s North Shore was a gift from the Wichman family to NTBG in 1974. Sitting on 1,000 acres, Limahuli is full of archaeological sites and a perfect counterpart environment for the drier McBryde Garden.
Behind NTBG’s headquarters in Lawa‘i, a building named after Wichman’s grandmother holds thousands of files of dehydrated plants, including many that have already been extinct. Some of those plants have been discovered and classified by Wichman himself, who says every time a plant goes extinct, it feels like losing a family member.
The Juliet Rice Wichman building also holds the key to many endangered species. The freezers inside the temperature-controlled building house thousands of seeds that could be germinated in case of need. After all, out of about 1,300 Native Hawaiian plant species; roughly 700 are in some level of federal protection, according to Wichman.
Inside that building, “a box within a box withing a box” houses a priceless collection. This “box” is a large library surrounded by thick glass walls, containing original botanical books that go back centuries. In case of a fire, gas comes out of special fire nozzles at 3,000 psi to completely evacuate the oxygen out of the room within a few seconds.
“We have the best collection of books on tropical agriculture and botany in the world,” said Wichman, pointing to a book on herbal medicine printed in 1512, written in Medieval Italian, covered by pig skin and printed in linen rag paper. “No amount of money in the world could buy all the books that are in here.”
Besides being substantial partners in cataloguing the flora of the Hawaiian Islands, NTBG works throughout the Pacific.
Next year, they are scheduled to publish a book on the flora of the Marquesas Islands, where historians believe the first Hawaiians came from.
Then in 2016, NTBG is looking into finishing a project that has spanned for three decades, the flora of Samoa.
Recently, NTBG inaugurated its Biodiversity Trail, a walking path taking people back to 450 million years ago. As the path progresses chronologically, each portion is illustrated by corresponding flora.
The trail is just another step in a journey NTBG has intensified lately to bring more people into the garden and help it to become a powerful place to inspire conservation.
But NTBG’s programs go beyond conservation. They are impacting people’s lives, such as the Breadfruit Institute, based on Maui.
“We actually have breadfruit growing in 30 countries around the world in order to address food security and global hunger,” Wichman said.
Without NTBG, he said, many plants wouldn’t have been discovered, and there would’ve been a void in the world in terms of knowledge and benefits of these plants.
He said working there all those years, being able to spend his life doing something that is really meaningful, has given him the most incredible life. And much of it was thanks to his grandmother, who was “fantastic with plants” and pushed him to apply for a job at NTBG in 1976.
“I feel like when I’m gone, I will have left the island and the world in a better place because of the what I’ve done with my life — that, to me, makes your life worthwhile,” Wichman said.