Honolulu's Foster Botanical Garden reopens as a spruced-up oasis

Aug. 27—The historic Foster ­Botanical Garden is one of those must-see attractions most residents last glimpsed on a field trip in the third grade, like Bishop Museum or the Waikiki Aquarium.

If it's been decades since you've set foot onto Foster's lush grounds, it's an unexpected pleasure to get reacquainted with a tropical oasis just a short walk from bustling downtown Honolulu. It would be a tranquil spot for nearby office workers to unwind during their lunch hours or squeeze in some exercise with a a walk around the 14-acre property.

The garden now has a noticeably new entrance and upgraded walking paths to welcome visitors back after being closed since February, for renovations that mainly improved accessibility for people with disabilities in compliance with federal law. It reopened Aug. 14.

Joshlyn D. Sand, director of Foster Botanical Garden, said the old entrance "looked like it was from the 1950s." But now the landscaping has been redesigned and a new ramp has replaced the "very old hamma jamma" walkway of mismatched concrete, which was also more steeply sloped and lacked handrails.

All pathways are now compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, replacing a hodgepodge of concrete, cobblestone and dirt pathways throughout the property that even sure-footed visitors may have found challenging.

"It makes it better for everybody," she said.

Access to the popular gazebo was just a dirt side path, for instance, but now the different theme gardens are all connected with upgraded walkways for a continuous flow. The first fully accessible plot in the city's recreational gardening program was built, including a dedicated parking stall, as part of 57 plots available for people to grow their own plants, said Sand, who is also a horticulturist.

The garden was originally scheduled to reopen in April, but there were unforeseen delays involving supply chain issues, ADA adjustments and the discovery of historic rock walls. Sections of the low rock walls (under 2 feet tall) that border terraces running through the heart of the garden were previously buried by foliage and other materials, and not obvious to planners initially, she said. Built in the mid-to-late 1800s, the walls needed to be documented by the state Historic Preservation Division.

A federal Community ­Development Block Grant funded the majority of the $1.26 million renovation project, she said.

Foster garden is the oldest of the city's five botanical gardens, originally created by Dr. William Hillebrand in the 1850s, and purchased by Mary and Thomas Foster in 1880. Mary Foster expanded the acreage of the property, added trees and, in 1930, bequeathed the garden to the city to be used as a public park.

Sand said popular features include the 20 designated "exceptional trees" planted by Hillebrand, which are among some of the oldest trees on the island, a lush conservatory full of orchids, exotic palms and theme gardens.

People come from all over the world to see the garden's famous giant bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), planted in 1913. It is a descendant of the original tree in India under which the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) sat and gained enlightenment, she said. A monk brought a cutting to Mary Foster as a gift, and she later converted to Buddhism, becoming a philanthropist who financed construction of the first Buddhist temple in the state, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.

A real conversation starter is an exceptional tree nicknamed the Dead Rat Tree (baobab), as its huge, hanging fuzzy seed pods actually look like dead rats swinging from the branches. Native to Africa and Australia, the tree, which is now 80 to 90 feet tall, was planted in the 1930s from a seedling from the mother tree at The Queen's Medical Center.

Always popular is the corpse flower plant, of which 14 are located throughout the park in varying sizes. The plant will either bloom with a flower or just a leaf in an erratic regenerative cycle, Sand said. According to the United States Botanic Garden website: "The corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) is the largest unbranched ­inflorescence in the plant kingdom, boasts a powerful stink, and blooms for just 2-3 days once every year or two. The bloom can grow up to 8 feet tall!"

On average, about 50,000 people visit the garden annually, with the summer months drawing the highest number, usually peaking in July with 8,000 to 9,000 visitors. Visitors are almost evenly split between residents and tourists, Sand said.

While the popular Midsummer Night's Gleam or Twilight Concert Series weren't held at the park this year, a special free concert will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 8. Dedicated to Foster, the event is co-sponsored by the Honpa Hongwanji and Friends of the Honolulu Botanical Gardens. Performers include Udi Bar-David, a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra; a choral group led by Nola Nahulu; the Herb Lee Trio; and others.

Foster Botanical Garden

180 N. Vineyard Blvd.

>> Hours: Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, closed on Christmas and New Year's Day.

>> Cost: $1-$5 general, $3 residents, $25 annual family pass

>> Info: 808-768-7135, email hbg@honolulu.gov or visit honolulu.gov/parks/hbg