Preserving, teaching cultural roots in Hana: Kahanu Garden’s new education center

with No Comments

Preserving, teaching cultural roots in Hana

Kahanu Garden has a brand new community-built education center

Kahanu Garden Education Center

Students and contractors pose for a photo during the construction of the Kahanu Garden Visitor

and Education Center. Photo courtesy of Mike Opgenorth


HANA — A space to learn, appreciate and preserve the Valley Isle’s native history and plants — and everything in between — is “rare and special” to find.

But the Hana community came together to build just that with the new Kahanu Garden Visitor and Education Center, located at the entrance to the Kahanu Garden National Tropical Botanical Garden. It offers a place for visitors and residents to learn about the archaeological, botanical and cultural significance of the area.

“It was the only way we would have done this, to have the community involved,” said Kahanu Garden Director Mike Opgenorth on Thursday morning in Hana. “Especially when it comes to the visitors. Are we just trying to welcome visitors and have a transactional relationship?

“For us, the answer is no. We’re trying to have a deeper relationship where they’re learning about place, culture, the people, the plants, and how all those things are connected.”

Nonprofits Kahanu Garden and student construction apprentice program Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike collaborated with local contractor Kipahulu Construction in building the $400,000 structure, with the help of Hana’s youths. The funds were raised through grants and donations.


Mike Opgenorth, director of Kahanu Garden, shows an example of an educational display, where visitors can read about native plants and the island’s history inside the new Visitor and Education Center.

“To have the kids do it, their character reflects in so many things here in this building, and so without them, it wouldn’t have been possible.” Opgenorth said. “Having those values in the project from the beginning, I think we were really blessed.”

Prior to construction of the center, visitors only were welcomed by a small kiosk. Opgenorth said Kahanu Garden needed something more.

About 50 students, graduate apprentices and teachers of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike, a program that focuses on helping the Hana community through construction projects and farming at Mahele Farm, took part in the project.

Construction lasted a year and the center was blessed in April 2018, but the doors didn’t open until September.


“One of the reasons why it was important to involve the youth of Hana in this scale of a project was that it provided learning opportunities every step of the way, from forming the foundation blocks to creating the artwork inside,” said Lipoa Kahaleuahi, executive director of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike. “These students will become the caretakers of our community, and so it is important to align them with opportunities to be a part of that now.”

Surrounded by native Hawaiian landscaping and plants, adorned in Polynesian and Hawaiian architecture and supported by ohia tree posts, the Visitor and Education Center is meant to “educate, showcase and create a vision” of the past and future and just to “enjoy the garden and the space” as a community, Opgenorth said.

Inside, visitors are welcomed by koa, breadfruit, kamani and other Polynesian hardwoods, as well as murals, a mosaic, and stained glass handcrafted by Hana’s students using local hardwoods, some of which are harvested from the garden.

“When we were building at Kahanu Garden, I learned the process of building a structure from start to finish,” said Nakaula Kanaka’ole Park, one of the Hana High School student apprentices. “It felt good doing this because it’s for my community.”

“Also, working with the Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike crew was fun,” said Makana Keaulana.

There are knicknacks, crafts, souvenirs and other items for sale at the Visitor and Education Center, as well as a few historic pieces on display, such as a photograph of Piilanihale Heiau, a registered National Historic Landmark, and early newspaper clippings.

Visitors can view the Piilanihale Heiau in real life, too — a massive lava rock structure believed to be the largest of its kind in Polynesia and located on the garden’s premises.

Since Kahanu Garden is focused on preservation, it’s also home to a collection of native plants from the Pacific Islands, as well as Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.

Before starting the self-guided or guided tour, people can learn about how Kahanu Garden was established in 1974 after the Kahanu family and Hana Ranch deeded two parcels of land to the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden.

The Visitor and Education Center is “only chapter one” of ideas planned for the garden, said Opgenorth. Other ideas include installing an artifacts display in the center and organizing more community events on the property.

“Whatever we do, we want to welcome and educate our visitors,” he said. “Allow folks to come in freely, but we also don’t want to be a scene because there are so many cultural sites that have been overrun.”

It’s important to “have our values at the forefront” of projects, he added, especially as Maui continues to host more visitors — reaching an all-time high of more than 3 million visitors last year.

A preemptive cap on the number of tourists who can be admitted each year to the botanical garden was set at 30,000 people, said Opgenorth. Visitor rates are currently about 16,000 per year, which is regulated through a sign-in sheet.

“I can only speak to this as a community member, but I think it is important in any place of significance to the Hawaiian culture that stewardship takes into consideration the impact of visitors and remains rooted to its significance to the people of that place,” Kahaleuahi said. “Placing a cap allows for room to remain for Hana residents, lineal descendants and kamaaina to connect while sharing the space with visitors.”

After driving the long dirt road entering the garden, the new structure comes into view, a symbol of a community effort to honor the land and to connect to the culture.

“Many people come with so much on their agenda — sometimes not every place is meant for visitors — and they don’t allow themselves to really experience or see or learn,” Kahaleuahi said. “As a community member, I hope visitors are enticed to pause just a little bit more after learning some of the history of this place, the families involved, the importance of it’s stewardship, first through the visitor and education center, then the garden itself.”

For more information about the Kahanu Garden National Tropical Botanical Garden, visit

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at


Self guided:
• How long. 1.5 hours minimum.

• When. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

• Cost. Adults (18 and older), $10; teens (18-12), $5; children (12 and younger), free; kamaaina, $7; Hana residents, free.

Guided tour:
• How long. 2 hours.
• When. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m.
• Cost. Adults (13 and older), $30; children (12 and younger), free. Source:

Leave a Reply