Image: Buddha stands amid bamboo at the Allerton Garden
Tara Godvin  /  AP
An image of a Buddha stands amid bamboo at the Allerton Garden on Kauai, Hawaii. The north shore site of the National Tropical Botanical Garden features a variety of plants native to the islands. At the garden headquartered on Hawaii's Garden Isle, resident scientists face the challenge of snatching the Pacific islands' quickly disappearing plants from the brink of extinction.
updated 7/24/2007 11:36:19 AM ET 2007-07-24T15:36:19

The National Tropical Botanical Garden offers plenty of beautiful flowers, with three sites on Kauai, Hawaii's "Garden Isle." Here visitors can get off the beach and learn more about the local flora.

But one aspect of what takes place at the National Tropical Botanical Garden goes well beyond aesthetics. Resident scientists face the challenge of snatching the Pacific islands' quickly disappearing plants from the brink of extinction.

"Most of our visitors to Hawaii look at this beautiful, lush landscape and they just think, 'It's paradise'," said Charles R. "Chipper" Wichman, garden director, gesturing to the verdant valley stretching out below his office window on Kauai. "They have no idea that what they are viewing is a war zone between our native plants that are trying to hold on to a space and all these invasive plants and animals that are trying to take it away from them."

The Hawaiian islands have a wealth of conservation needs and are known among botanists as the nation's "extinction capital." About 180 plant species in Hawaii have 50 or fewer individuals living in the wild, Wichman said.

"We are facing an extinction crisis here in the Hawaiian Islands. And the plants here are part of our national heritage, part of the United States' national heritage," Wichman said.

Conservation at the garden involves locating and identifying endangered plants, raising them in green houses and then reintroducing them in the gardens and elsewhere to reconstruct native plant environments and bolster the health of the islands' many other troubled species.

At the National Tropical Botanical Garden's headquarters on Kauai's South Shore, the public can visit display gardens for free, or buy tickets and hop a tram for tours of the McBryde or Allerton gardens in a valley a couple miles away.

The McBryde Garden nurtures plants from throughout the tropics, some of which are extinct in the wild. Next door, the formal Allerton Garden was begun by Hawaii's Queen Emma in the late 1800s and transformed into its current design by a scion of a wealthy Chicago family who purchased the land in the late 1930s.

The third site, the Limahuli Garden on the lush North Shore, features many native species and stunning 700-year-old terraces for growing taro, known as lo'i kalo.

In addition to these three gardens on Kauai, the National Tropical Garden has two other botanical gardens and three preserves, all but one of which — The Kampong in southern Florida — are located in Hawaii.

Though created by an act of Congress in 1964, the garden does not get annual government funds and instead depends on private donations and grants from public and private foundations.

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Among the garden's conservation and research triumphs is the alula, on display at both the McBryde and Limahuli gardens on Kauai. Similar in appearance to a cabbage on a stick, the cute, stocky little plant has been grown by the hundreds in the garden.

Triumphant as the alula's. The world's only known wild kanaloa, a humble-looking member of the pea family first scientifically described in 1994, lives on a sea stack off Kahoolawe, an uninhabited Hawaiian island still sprinkled with unexploded bombs after being used for target practice by the military for five decades.

Guided across the small island by people trained in ordnance detection, two of the garden's collectors spotted two of the unique plants on a tiny lump of offshore land topped by a piece of native vegetation that had been isolated for centuries from the human-introduced ravages of rats, grazing sheep, farming and bombs.

The collectors were able to gather samples of the plant after perilously lowering themselves down on ropes. Subsequent visits to the spot have been made by helicopter.

A lone example of this shrub grown from a seed is rooted in a tub, cordoned off from the public at the spot where the McBryde Garden and Allerton Garden meet. But so far researchers haven't found a way to produce any more of the enigmatic plant that ancient pollen records suggest was one of the dominant species here for a couple thousand years until the mid-1500s.

In all, the garden has had a hand in the discovery of 30 new species endemic to Hawaii and the rediscovery of about another 30 thought to be extinct.

But the garden has more in its sights on the research front than reproduction. It also has an Institute for Ethnomedicine through which the garden discovered, with the help of traditional Samoan healers, a potential anti-HIV drug currently in clinical trials.

If the drug proves to be marketable, the Samoan government as well as the village where it was found and the family of the healer who helped find it will get a good portion of the royalties, Wichman said.

"Our goal is to really try and set the standard for how to work with indigenous people and honor their intellectual property rights," he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Hawaiian paradise

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  1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai

    Kalalau Valley, on Kauai's west side, is more than 3,000 feet deep and provides stunning panoramic views. Waimea is nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (John Borthwick / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Men row their Hawaiian outrigger canoe towards Waikiki beach, with Diamond Head in the background. Outrigger canoes are now used for recreation purposes and to ride the waves, but in times past they were the main means of transportation between the Hawaiian Islands. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The tranquil waters of Oahu

    Hanauma Bay is one of the finest stretches of beach in the world. (Eric L Wheater / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Surfer's paradise

    Australian Luke Egan competes on Oahu's North Shore, one of the best places in Hawaii to ride the big waves. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water colors

    A school of manini fish pass over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wailua Falls

    The beautiful 83-foot tiered Wailua Falls is an easily accessible, must-see waterfall on the island of Kauai. Wailua Falls was first made famous when it was featured in the television show, "Fantasy Island." (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Emerald peaks

    The iconic, towering emerald peaks of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, stand out in Maui's Iao Valley State Park. (Adina Tovy Amsel / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historic reminder

    The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marks the resting place of many of the battleship's 1,177 crew members who lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese. The memorial is the "ground zero" of World War II. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aloha!

    Hula dancers welcome the sailing crew of a Hokule'a, a canoe, into Kailua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The heart of Hawaii

    The sun sets on Honolulu, Oahu's capital and Hawaii's largest, most populous city. (Robert Y. Ono / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Polynesian heat

    Brandon OFueo Maneafaiga, 23, of Waianae, Hawaii balances two flaming knifes during the 13th Annual World Fireknife Championship at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Laie, Hawaii. (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    People watch from a viewing area as an explosion takes place on Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters. She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. (Leigh Hilbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Forces of nature

    The Dragon's Teeth are bizarre lava formations eroded by wind and salt spray at Makalua-puna Point. (Karl Lehmann / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Heaven on Earth

    Astronomy observatories are seen on the peak of the snow-covered, Mauna Kea mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano. (Tim Wright / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. On the way to Sainthood

    Tourists walk through a cemetery past the grave, left, of Father Damien at Kalawao, Hawaii. After cancer patient Audrey Toguchi prayed to Father Damien, known for helping leprosy patients in Hawaii, to help her, and her cancer went away, Pope Benedict XVI approved the case in July 2008 as Damien's second miracle, opening the way for the 19th century Belgian priest to be declared a saint. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Cool colors

    Rainbow eucalyptus (Mindanao Gum) trees grow in Keanae, Maui. Once a year, these magnificent trees shed their bark and take on the colors of the rainbow. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Magic Sands

    An aerial view of La'aloa Beach Park or Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The beach is called Magic Sands because when rough surf hits, all of the sand is emptied off the beach and temporarily moved out to sea. (Brian Powers / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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