With a granddaughter’s love, an heirloom garden gets a new lease on life.
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For nearly four decades, May Moir tended the most extraordinary garden in Honolulu. The gardens of Lipolani, her Nuuanu Valley home, were featured in garden books and magazines around the world. They also generated much of the plant material for the inspirational floral arrangements she and her volunteers provided the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Moir became a gardening icon.
For years, everyone from landscape architects to garden-club matrons paid tribute to the originality and tenacity she poured into Lipolani. It was both a laboratory and an endless source of inspiration to a woman who, as a young tomboy, had driven her mother crazy planting tree seeds in her flowerbeds in Kaimuki.
Moir’s books, The Garden Watcher and Flower Arranger’s Handbook, attempted to explain what she did so naturally. The Academy’s book, Floral Traditions, tracked her dramatically original creations.
Moir’s husband, Goodale Moir, had been an agronomist and chairman of the board of Hawaii Sugar Planters Association. In the 1950s, the two traveled to tropical locations all around the world. Most of their travel was in connection with his work, but they always found time to hunt down other plant enthusiasts and exotic species, which they then introduced to the Islands. The giant, yellow heliconia commonly found in floral arrangements and gardens today is just one of the plants they ushered into the Islands.
In his book, Gardens of Hawaii, landscape architect Stephen Haus calls Moir “the godmother of Hawaii gardeners.” She was visited by garden enthusiasts and landscapers from as far away as Brazil, Bali and Thailand, and Lipolani was often shown in their own books. But with her passing in 2001 at the age of 93, her incredible garden was left unattended, to go to seed.
Then, a year ago, her granddaughter, Susanne Zola, who had spent many hours at her grandmother’s side, moved into the abandoned house. The gardens were now overgrown, and the property had taken on a kind of bleakness and spiritual emptiness. Zola found rotting beds of bromeliads, agapanthus, cymbidium orchids and ferns in need of nutrition and in general disarray. Disease had set in everywhere.
“We had to garden, garden, garden,” says Zola, who has the same slim, Spartan frame as her grandmother. But where Moir was taciturn and understated, Zola is ebullient and expressive.
Together with Sergio Vasquez, who Moir had hired for years to help her with the heavy garden work, Zola began the transformation. “We washed the leaves, mulched and fertilized,” she says.
Zola took one small section at a time and worked her way through the sunken entrance courtyard filled with bromeliads, tree fern and dracaena, around to the garden beneath the vented (puka puka) tile wall and finally into the much-photographed moss garden room Zola calls “a salad.” When she was through, she relaxed and gave the garden six months to rest and heal itself.