Family Roots

With a granddaughter’s love, an heirloom garden gets a new lease on life.

A pod emerges from the center of brilliant pink lotus in a water garden at Lipolani. (On the right) Blue agapanthus flowers brighten Island summer-time arrangements and gardens. Photos: Linny Morris Cunningham.

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.

Susanne Zola has given new life to her grandmother’s garden. 

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.

Two pots of Christmas cactus soak up the sun in a remote corner of the back garden. 

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.

A bromeliad from the Vriesea family is just one of the 130 of the bromeliad species with broad smooth leaves. 

At the end of the six months, Zola began to replant, to bring back the garden’s original order and brighten its beds. “Gardening is circular work. You work on one area, move on to the next and soon you are right back at the beginning.”

Growing up, she had spent many hours in the garden learning about the idiosyncrasies of plants. “You’re a chip off my old block,” her grandmother always said to her. Her grandmother would say, “the more you look, the more you see,” says Zola. Then she’d send her down the street to find things along the side of the road that could be used in the garden or in arrangements.

The rafters and walls of Moir’s garage were always stuffed with dried material she collected. There were pods, grasses, unusual branches and huge, dried palm fronds. The masses of material are still there, but Zola has edited them and added her own touch, arranging them more artfully. Dried stalks are bundled in a wheelbarrow and mosses peek out of antique burlap bags hung on a rope clothesline with old wooden clothespins.

What Zola has done at Lipolani is more than just restore her grandmother’s garden; she’s reinterpreted it and made it hers. An avid collector and self-confessed neatnik, she’s taken the ground-hugging, mid-century stucco house and managed to brighten it, while keeping it essentially the same.

Moir’s living room window seat and garden view. 

“I wanted to build upon what my grandmother did,” she says. What Zola loves to do is design vignettes throughout the house and garden, assemblages of family heirlooms and found objects. A relative’s old, ornate, silver hairbrushes adorn a dressing table in the bathroom, something Moir would never have done. When old friends of Moir’s visit the place, they know something’s changed, but it’s hard to put their fingers on just what. Still, they approve.

Moir had always painted her garden and floral assemblages, and there were even some early life drawings stored away. Zola decided to haul them out and place them in groupings throughout the house and garden. Peek out the kitchen door and you see one of Moir’s painted gardenscapes. The solarium, once filled with Goodale’s orchids, has been replanted and transformed with garden furniture, paintings and a rug. It’s now a cozy garden room for breakfast, tea or an intimate supper. This is a romanticism Moir might never have allowed herself.

While Moir thought of her house and garden as separate spaces, Zola sees them as connected and flowing into one another: indoor and outdoor rooms. The palette has shifted subtly, too. While Moir tended to have more color in her garden from the red centers of neoregelia bromeliads and less in her house, Zola is the opposite. In the garden are organic forms, piles of rocks hauled from other parts of the property, Thai spirit houses, pottery and furniture. Inside the house, deep jewel tones shimmer from pillows in her grandmother’s often-photographed bay window, mimicking the spikes of petrapolitana bromeliads outside.

A flower spike of the aechmea chantinii bromeliad peeks out from amid tropical ferns. 

“I wanted the garden to be part of the house,” she says. Now she is just letting time do its work. Something her grandmother also taught her.

Since moving to Oahu, Zola has connected with Moir’s old floral crew at the Academy and joins them Monday mornings to construct arrangements. She’s also thinking of reviving her own floral design business, A Touch of Susanne. Until recently she worked on the Big Island harvesting and foraging for plant materials for her designs. Her clients in the elegant vacation homes along the Kohala Coast were people who wanted something that could double as art.

Last year, she agreed to open Moir’s house for the annual Garden Club Christmas tour. She was a little nervous, realizing that many of Moir’s old friends, even though they were curious, might not be able to bear seeing the place changed. “I wanted them to see it glowing, filled again with art and writing.”

Several days before the tour, Zola glanced outside the living room’s large picture window and was horrified. A giant staghorn fern, which for years had grown up along a tree, had gotten waterlogged in a rainstorm and crashed to the ground. Not only did it leave a large, raw, empty spot on the tree trunk, it weighed more than 300 pounds. Zola and several men could not budge it. So there it sat, in full view of the window. Stunned, she decided not to panic, but to simply regard it as what it was, an occurrence of nature. The downed fern sits there to this day, now filled with mulch and colorful, healthy bromeliads.

The gloriosa lily, native to tropical Africa, has a tendency to pop up anywhere in gardens without notice. It makes a lovely addition to most arrangements because of its undulating qualities.

She also decided to decorate the home for the holidays entirely with inexpensive faux decorations; a big risk when the guests would essentially be plant people. Instead, with tongue in cheek, she haunted Flora Dec, Ben Franklin and Pier 1 Imports for cheap chic. White fairy lights were twisted into vines of plastic greenery and glass garlands dripped and glistened from a small imitation tree. The result was beautiful, lush and totally original.

Her grandmother might have done the same. “She was adroit at jury-rigging things,” says Zola. “She was always making courageous choices and was never afraid of doing something different.” Zola sees herself as being that way, too, only more impulsive and not as disciplined.

“She taught me a lot,” she adds. “Sometimes, in the garden, if I’m still for a few minutes, she’s here.”

Then the two can talk like before, about art, design and the garden.