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Planning a visit to Kauai? We regularly add news and information about events, activities, and places to see on The Garden Isle.

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Sheila Heathcote has lived in Hawaii since 1986. She's a published author on the topic of Kauai and the owner of Hale O Nanakai Bed & Breakfast.

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National Tropical Botanical Gardens - Allerton Site

Once a retreat of Hawaii's Queen Emma, the cliffs of the Lāwa`i Valley still cascade with her favorite deep-purple bougainvillea. Come delight your senses in this garden of beauty, a masterpiece of landscape design and a natural showcase for tropical plants. Behold the seemingly ancient Jurassic trees. Stroll through outdoor 'rooms', beside rippling pools and dramatic sculpture. Drink in the sights and sounds of fascinating plants, vibrant flowers, and flowing water. Taste the flavor of Europe blended with the spirit of Hawai‘i.

Allerton Garden extends along the banks of the Lāwa‘i Stream where the valley narrows before opening onto the Pacific Ocean. The earliest history of Allerton Garden was intermingled with the upper part of the Lāwa‘i Valley that is now the McBryde Garden. Both were integral to the ahupua`a (land division) of Lāwa‘i. It was not until well after the arrival of the first Europeans in the late 1700s and the subsequent changes to the traditional Hawaiian way of life that the history of the lower Lāwa‘i Valley began to diverge from that of the upper valley.

Lāwa‘i Valley was granted to James Young Kanehoa in 1848. He was the son of John Young, an advisor to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I. Kanehoa willed a third of the land to his niece Queen Emma when he died and she received the rest of it in 1885 from Kanehoa’s widow, Hikoni. She first visited Lāwa‘i on a tour of the kingdom with her husband Liholiho, King Kamehameha IV. After the death of her husband and young son the Queen retreated to Lāwa‘i. She planted rose apples, Alexandrian laurel, mangoes, bamboo, pandanus, ferns, and bougainvillea on the valley cliffs. Some of these plants still grace the Allerton Garden today.

The McBryde family, who owned a significant amount of agricultural land on the southwest side of the island, leased the Lāwa‘i Valley from Queen Emma, who reserved for herself the cottage and surrounding land. They purchased the property outright from her estate in 1886. The upper valley was intensively cultivated in sugar cane, while taro and rice were grown in the lower portion by tenant farmers. In 1899 the lower valley was conveyed to Alexander McBryde. He lowered one of Queen Emma’s cottages to the valley floor and lived in it for many years. Alexander planted palms, gingers, plumerias, and ferns in gardens along the beach. By 1930 most of the small-scale agriculture in the lower valley had decreased and the tenant farmer population had declined.

In 1938 McBryde sold the property to Robert Allerton. Allerton was the only son of a Mayflower descendant who had made his fortune in Chicago in livestock, banking, and real estate. After spending five years studying art in Europe, Allerton concluded that he would never be successful as an artist and he returned to Chicago. He became an avid art collector and patron. He also became fascinated by landscape architecture and set about planning a series of formal gardens and settings for statues at “The Farms” in Monticello, Illinois. 

Allerton met John Gregg, a young architectural student at the University of Illinois, who he eventually adopted. The two men traveled the world on collecting trips, purchasing works of art and getting new inspiration for the gardens. On their way home to Illinois from a collecting trip in the Pacific in 1937, the Allertons visited Kaua‘i and were captivated with the lower portion of the Lāwa‘i Valley. They purchased the property. In 1938 they moved into their new home, which was designed by John Gregg. They called the property “Lāwa‘i-kai” (kai is the Hawaiian word for “near the sea.”)

Robert Allerton and John Gregg immediately began designing and laying out the gardens, continuing to include exotic plants as Alexander McBryde had done. They enlarged the gardens with plants they collected in Southeast Asia and the Pacific and they introduced classic statuary that they collected as well.

In the 1960s Robert joined with a group of organizations and individuals committed to establishing a tropical botanical garden for the United States. Together they petitioned Congress and in 1964, the last year of Robert Allerton’s life, the charter was granted to establish the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden. A gift from Robert to the fledgling institution made possible the purchase of land adjacent to the Allerton Garden, which became part of its first garden (now known as the McBryde Garden).

John Gregg Allerton inherited Lāwa‘i-kai and continued to live there. He often extended impromptu invitations to those on NTBG’s public tours to venture into his garden for a personally guided visit. John passed away in 1986, leaving the estate in trust. The National Tropical Botanical Garden formally assumed management of the Allerton Garden for the Allerton Gardens Trust in the early 1990s.

No history of the Allerton Garden would be complete without the mention of Hideo Teshima, who grew up in the Lāwa‘i Valley and was employed by the Allertons at age 14.  Hideo eventually became superintendent of the garden under the direction of the NTBG and served in that capacity until his death in 2001. The impresssion that Teshima left on the garden is deep, including the creation of the Palmetum, which is named in his honor.