Text by Sonny Ganaden | Image by John Hook
Helen and Warren McCord started planting Monterey pines at their new property in Kula in 1968 to serve as a windblock for a garden. Their first sale of one of these trees was a total fluke: A woman came to the property, and mistook the pines for mainland-style Christmas trees. Not one to disappoint, Helen let her buy one to take home. The next day, the woman returned with her sister and her mother. “At that point, we were so broke I might’ve sold one of the kids,” joked Helen when retelling the story in June. In July, she passed away peacefully. As one of the largest growers of Christmas trees in Hawai‘i, the McCord family, who owns and operates Kula Botanical Garden, continues to honor Helen’s memory with Maui holiday tradition.
The seeds for the Kula Botanical Garden were planted when Helen and Warren purchased the overgrown property on the leeward slope of Haleakalā to live on and run their landscaping business from. They reintroduced native plants to the land, and preserved those that were already there, including a grove of old-growth koa that had survived decades of grazing from neighboring cattle. When she was pregnant with her first child, Helen helped pour the concrete that lines the large pond near the center of the property.
By 1971, the couple had turned their focus to the display garden they had created for their landscaping company, transforming it into a botanical garden complete with a reception area where local products were available for purchase. Four years later, after Helen’s encounter with the woman who bought that first Monterey pine, the McCords were distributing flyers advertising their Christmas trees, and nurturing nine additional acres of pines planted for the annual festivities.
Introduced pine trees proliferate throughout Hawai‘i, but as many aspiring tree farmers can attest, they are difficult to grow into the conical, verdurous shape associated with Christmas. “They’re attacked by everything,” Helen said. “Aphids, under-fertilizing, over-fertilizing, and molting are a few problems.” Though the trees grow quickly—roughly a foot per annum by their second year—they also require constant pruning, watering, and trimming. Warren McCord, now an octogenarian, has become an expert in their cultivation, trimming them monthly.
Kula Botanical Garden makes the trees available for purchase after six years, when the McCords and seasonal workers cut down, trim, net, and sell them out of a specially converted lot on the property. They also now grow and sell Leyland cypress trees, which are a tidier alternative to Monterey pines. At the Kula Botanical Garden Christmas tree sale, families turn the annual holiday errand into a tradition, gathering with friends, playing music, and tailgating at the lot.
All year round, Kula Botanical Garden is a gathering place, open for tours and available for weddings and events. Here, a public walk weaves through eight acres of endemic and cultivated plants, rock walls, a covered bridge, another pond, and an aviary. In addition, Kula Botanical Garden also grows some of the finest coffee trees on the islands. Like the Monterey pines, coffee is notoriously difficult to maintain and distribute, but for the McCords, the extra effort is worth it. “Most everything can grow up here,” Helen remarked. “But some things need a little, or sometimes quite a lot, of TLC.”
Kula Botanical Garden is located at 638 Kekaulike Ave. For more information, visit kulabotanicalgarden.com.