By Jan TenBruggencate

Kalo in the lo‘i at Limahuli Garden.

It is possible for a visitor or even a resident to spend time in Hawai`i, entirely missing what makes this place special.

You can shop at Costco, stop in a burger joint, drive down a street lined with Southeast Asian golden shower trees. You can stop at a beach park shaded by non-native ironwoods, work in an industrial park in buildings sheathed in Chinese steel, and listen to some country music before watching politics on Fox or MSNBC.

A visitor can fly into the airport, collect baggage and maybe spot a non-native dendrobium lei, catch a shuttle to the hotel, ride a quiet elevator to a high floor and then look out over the ocean.

You can do all these things and have no hint that you’re in a place with a special culture, a history, an environment that stands apart.

Hawai‘i has a nice climate, palm trees, sandy beaches — but for that you could be in the Caribbean, the Solomons, the Seychelles. There’s a whole swath of the tropics that supports lots and lots of really nice places. But these islands stand apart for something more.

The culture of the Hawaiian Islands is unique. How a Polynesian voyaging tradition interfaced with a subtropical island chain to establish a stable island community, that’s one piece. Another is how that community responded to an avalanche of insults like new cultures, diseases, and a new economic system.

There is a fascinating history to these islands, and there is no shortage of excellent reading material about it.

Read Patrick Kirch’s “A Shark Going Inland is My Chief: The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai‘i.”

And Gavan Daws’ “Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands.”

And Liliuokalani’s “Hawaii’s Story by Hawai‘i’s Queen.”

And perhaps Jay Hartwell’s “Na Mamo: Hawaiian People Today.”

That’s for starters. Go talk to a public librarian for tips on where else to look for reading material.

Our environment is unique, although you don’t see much of the original Hawaiian native environment in the developed parts of the islands, with their landscape plants introduced from every part of the globe.

Our tall panax hedges and brilliant bougainvillea, our red African tulip and spreading monkeypod trees, the drooping spider lilies and mock orange hedges — it’s all gorgeous, but it’s not Hawaiian.

Jan TenBruggencate

The National Tropical Botanical Garden at Lawa‘i has a newly upgraded canoe garden, featuring the plants brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the early Polynesian voyagers — the plants that made up their supply kit for making any new island habitable. Food plants, fiber plants, medicinal plants, a nice botanical toolbox to supplement whatever they found naturally on a new island.

The Limahuli Garden on the North Shore, also a part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, celebrates both introduced and native plants. Its tours are an important piece of a serious visitor or resident’s education into the real Hawai‘i.

Whether you live here or are visiting, it’s worth your time to learn a little about this remarkable place.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.