History and Mission

Our Mission

To inspire and cultivate the conservation of tropical plant biodiversity, and connect it to the culture of Hawaiʻi through education and research.

Our history: 100 years and beyond!

The Harold L. Lyon Arboretum is located in a zone of tropical rainforest with an annual rainfall average of 13 feet (4 meters). The site lies in the ili (land division) of Haukulu and ʻAihualama, in Mānoa valley, on the island of Oʻahu. Several man-made features, including stone platforms, loʻi and the occurrence of many Polynesian-introduced plants attest to the importance of the site

Alteration of the forest by early Hawaiian farmers was followed by post-contact agriculture. Free-ranging cattle grazed their way up the valley. By the early 1900s, native forest had been heavily impacted in Mānoa and in other watersheds throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Without healthy forest cover,  rainwater flowed to the ocean rather than recharging the ground water table, the primary source of potable water in Hawaiʻi.

This loss was of special concern to the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) because sugar required great quantities of water. Dr. Harold Lyon, a plant pathologist hired by HSPA, concluded that healthy forests should be preserved, that heavily damaged native forests could not recover on their own, and that damaged watersheds could be restored with introduced plants.

1900-1960

In 1918, the HSPA came to a verbal agreement with landowner Fred Harrison on the purchase of 124 acres of land in upper Mānoa – to serve as a test site to evaluate trees that could be used for reforestation throughout the islands, and to test sugarcane seedlings. Clearing and out-planting of sugarcane began that year, and the deed was officially signed in 1919.

The test site became the basis of the Mānoa Arboretum.  Full scale planting began in 1920, and was essentially completed by 1945. In the late 1940’s HSPA had achieved their reforestation research objectives and no longer needed the site.  Dr. Lyon strongly believed that Hawaiʻi needed a botanical garden and saw this as an opportunity for the state of Hawaiʻi .

In 1953 the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaiʻi accepted the land from HSPA for fee of $1.00. The deed stipulated that the University “…use, maintain and preserve the granted premises as an arboretum and botanical garden only.”  Lyon used his own money to fund Arboretum operations. When Dr. Lyon died in 1957, he left part of his estate in trust, to help fund the Arboretum in perpetuity.

Seven days later, the University of Hawaiʻi Board of Regents renamed the Mānoa Arboretum the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum.  A plaque located along the main trail commemorates the many contributions of Dr. Lyon.

1960-1990

In the 1960s collections were assembled, trees inventoried, and the main greenhouse was built.  Until 1972, the Arboretum served as a research station and was closed to the public. In 1972 the idea for a community support and fundraising group arose, resulting in the formation of the Lyon Arboretum Association (today, Friends of Lyon Arboretum).  Lyon Arboretum staff and volunteers established education and outreach programs, which were later expanded to include adult education, children’s education, internships and a guides program.  These programs have been a major factor in bringing the public to the Arboretum. Plant sales added to revenues, and events brought more people to enjoy the Arboretum. Groups of volunteers helped maintain the grounds, made crafts, lei, jams and jellies, and helped in the book and gift shop. Various theme gardens were established: including the Beatrice Krauss Hawaiian Ethnobotany Garden, the Herb Garden, Economic Section, Palm Section, and the Hawaiian Garden.

Researchers from around the world have taken advantage of the large living collections, particularly palms, heliconias, gingers, ethnobotanical and native Hawaiian plants. Other researchers have studied stream life, birds, insects, climate, soils and hydrology. Horticulturists at Lyon have developed new varieties of rhododendron, gingers, calathea, hibiscus, and alocasia.  The Arboretum has evaluated and released over 180 plant introductions to nurseries and the public.

1990-Today

In the early 1990s the horticulture aspect was expanded to include micropropagation of rare and endangered Hawaiian plants, and native forest restoration began. This tremendously important Hawaiʻi Rare Plant Program has greatly expanded and is leader in the field of plant conservation.  Several University of Hawaiʻi departments utilize the garden for research or instruction. High school and college groups, Community service groups, corporate groups, and others have participated in large service projects that help maintain the Arboretum while providing opportunities for learning and community service.

In recent years an annual average of 1,500 adults attend the Arboretum’s adult classes; and over 10,000 schoolchildren and teachers visit on field trips using STEM curriculum developed specifically for the Arboretum. Lyon Arboretum’s trained docents guide an annual average of 1,500 visitors on garden tours.  Recently several ancient Hawaiian loʻi (taro growing field) were reopened. Wood harvested from the grounds has been used to create traditional canoes, tools and other educational and cultural resources, and many classes that perpetuate cultural knowledge are offered.

Throughout its history Lyon Arboretum has worked to bring beauty, knowledge and an appreciation of- and respect for nature to its many audiences. The Arboretum is a gem, an important resource for both the University of Hawaiʻi and the community at large. Harold Lyon’s 1956 words from his “Honolulu Can Have a Botanical Garden” article still ring true:  “Here then is a golden opportunity to build in upper Mānoa Valley, a vast botanical garden of native and introduced plants and at the same time carry through a project in water conservation that would prove of immense value to Honolulu.”

The future of Lyon Arboretum

View our Strategic Plan for 2018-2023

Responsibilities of Lyon Arboretum

  • Develop a major resource center for tropical plants with Hawaiʻi/Pacific Basin/Asian focus by enhancing our living plant collection and establishing an appropriate reference library and herbarium.
  • Make our collections and information available to a broad clientele including students, researchers, industry, and the general public by performing and disseminating the results of research, by appropriate outreach and educational activities, and through plant and seed exchange programs.
  • Serve as an outdoor laboratory for school and university students and classes.
  • Import, identify, improve through breeding, and introduce to the public plants useful for horticulture, research, education, or industry.
  • Preserve and propagate germplasm of endangered plant species, especially those native to Hawaiʻi. Special attention is given to the use of micropropagation and tissue culture technology in conservation of Hawaiian plants.
  • Develop a research and training program in Hawaiian ecosystem restoration.
  • Serve as a university field station for terrestrial biology and stream biology.

Information Assistance

If you need assistance accessing information on our website, contact us by calling the Main Office at (808) 988-0456