geological history

We are located on the historic Onomea Bay. Geographically, the valley was carved by the waters of Onomea and Alakahi streams, which originate all the way up in Mauna Kea, and by the wind and waves which cut into the lava cliffs of the coast line. Earthquakes, tsunamis and tropical storms have also caused radical changes to the landscape.


Onomea Arch used to stand on the north side of Onomea Bay. Carved into the lava rocks by the waves, legend has it that King Kamehameha threw his spear into the rock which created a huge tunnel and arch. This famous landmark attracted visitors to Onomea Bay long before the Garden was established. Onomea Arch fell during an earthquake in 1956, and today appears as a wide crevice in the cliff on the north side of Onomea Bay which can be viewed from Ocean Vista in the Garden.

Onomea arch before its collapse. Photo courtesy of Hawaii State Archives.

Onomea Bay and Kahali’i (Native Hawaiian fishing village). Photo courtesy of Hawaii State Archives.


Long ago, Onomea Bay was settled as a Hawaiian fishing village. Settlers cleared much of the vegetation to plant food producing crops such as taro, coconuts,  breadfruit and mangos.

Onomea Bay also served as one of the Big Island Hawai’i’s first natural landing areas for sailing ships. In the early 1800s, the fishing village known as Kahali’i, became a shipping port, first importing materials to construct the Onomea Sugar Mill and then exporting raw sugar. The settlers during this time were a mixture of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos who came to Hawai’i to work in the sugar cane fields and build the Onomea Sugar Mill.

Several relics from this time still exist: remnants of the Onomea Sugar Mill are in the hills above the Garden; within the Garden on Cook Pine Trail you will find a Portuguese bread oven that was discovered when the jungle was being cleared for the Garden. The oven is made of heat-resistant rocks and was used to bake bread on a flat stove.

Plants that came from this history and remain in the Garden include a row of stately palm trees that line the scenic route, and the towering wild banana, mango, coconut, guava and monkeypod trees you see on the ocean side of the Garden.

After the Onomea Sugar Mill ceased operations, many of the earlier settlers moved away. For a time parts of the valley were used to farm lilikoi (passionfruit) and graze cattle, but by the early 1900s Onomea Valley was deserted and the vegetation so dense that few signs of the former habitation could be seen. 

By the 1960s and 70s, Onomea Valley was an overgrown and virtually impenetrable jungle, choked with wild invasive trees, weed and thorn thickets, and strangling vines. This is the state of the land when Founders Dan and Pauline Lutkenhouse discovered it in 1977. 

Onomea Bay during the plantation era. Photo courtesy of Hawaii State Archives


HOW we got here

Founder Dan Lutkenhouse is dwarfed by Heliconia caribaea c.v. purpurea (Giant red lobster claw), one of the world’s largest specimens.

“We’re preserving the valley so that mankind can enjoy it forever.” -Dan Lutkenhouse Sr.

The Founder Dan Lutkenhouse Sr. discovered the Onomea Valley while on a vacation to the Big Island of Hawai’i in 1977. Lutkenhouse was in the process of selling his 40-year-old trucking business in California and retiring. He and his wife agreed that this is where they would like to spend the rest of their lives. They purchased the 17-acre parcel for its seclusion and beauty and once Dan began exploring the land, he decided to establish a botanical garden in order to preserve the valley and its beauty forever. Onomea Valley was once an overgrown and virtually impenetrable jungle, choked with invasive species, weed and thorn thickets.

Every day, seven days a week, until the Garden opened in 1984, Dan, his assistant Terry Taikue worked with cane knives, sickles, picks, shovels and a chainsaw to clear paths through the jungle. His wife, Pauline would pack Dan a brown bag lunch and he would disappear into the jungle, returning at night dirty and tired. 

All the work was done by hand to avoid disturbing the natural environment or destroying valuable plants and tree roots. Trails were hewn from hard lava rock with picks and shovels. To keep the soil from compacting and the natural beauty from being destroyed, no tractors were used, excess rock was removed, and gravel brought in by wheelbarrow. 


Without formal botanical training, but with a love of nature and the Onomea Valley, Lutkenhouse created a living tapestry of plants.   


Lutkenhouse followed the contours of the land in designing the Garden trails, which curve and wind their way throughout the jungle. Gradually, secret landscapes revealed themselves. It took years of carefully clearing the jungle before he discovered one of the crown jewels of the Garden – a three-tiered waterfall said to be the most beautiful in all Hawaii which can be viewed at Onomea Falls in the Garden.

A Madagascar village where Dan obtained a rare stone plant.

Dan with the Odosicyos (Madagascar Stone)


Over the course of the next 17 years, Dan lovingly cultivated, collected and planted over 2,500 tropical and subtropical plants, both native and species from around the globe. Over 100 of these species were personally procured on plant collecting trips to countries as far as Madagascar. Dan and Pauline cultivated relationships with local horticulturists and brought back plants and trees from other tropical environments. Some of these plants are now extinct in the wild and the Garden remains a seed bank for these species to live on for future generations. 


After the passing of Dan Lutkenhouse Sr. in 2007 and Pauline Lutkenhouse in 2017, Dan’s children Dan Lutkenhouse Jr. and daughter Debi Lutkenhouse-Frost took over operation of the Garden under the guidance of the Board of Directors. Their vision is to use the power of the existing Garden to create a larger hub for sustainability education and climate change.