Eight-acre Steelgrass farm – so-called after a nickname for bamboo, a member of the grass family with mechanical strength that rivals metal -- is on Kauai's East side, above the town of Kapa'a, between Sleeping Giant and Mt. Wai'ale'ale. The most northerly and geologically the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is often called the Garden Island, and its landscape is home to a wide variety of ecosystems and microclimates, from desert canyon to the wettest spot on Earth.
The pages that follow describe how the Lydgate Family came to Kauai, tell the story of creating Steelgrass Farm, describe the educational programs we offer in diversified agriculture, provide a botanical inventory of the plants we grow, and contain many photographs of the Farm.
Emily and Will Lydgate, owners of Steelgrass Farm, are the great-grandchildren of John Mortimer Lydgate, founder of the family’s Kauai branch, who arrived in Hawaii as a small boy in the 1860’s. Living first in Laupahoehoe on the Big Island, where he learned to speak fluent Hawaiian, John Mortimer, or JM as he is remembered, was more interested in education and the world of ideas than in acquiring property or making money in the sugar industry. As a teenager he was employed by the physician and botanist William Hillebrand to assist him on his expeditions into Hawaii’s forests to collect local plants, few of which had been systematically catalogued or given Western scientific names. These expeditions resulted in the publication in 1887 of Hillebrand’s The Flora of the Hawaiian Islands, the first and still a standard reference work on Hawaiian plants. The book begins with a dedicatory note to JM, and to this day, there are over a dozen native Hawaiian plants, many of them rare and endangered, whose botanical names include the term lydgatei, in recognition of the boy who was the first to bring them to the attention of the scientific community.
JM’s interest in education led him to spend as much time as he could going to school, first at Oahu College in Honolulu, since renamed Punahou School, then the Universities of Toronto, Heldelberg, and Edinburgh, from which he earned his M.A., and later Yale Divinity School. At Punahou, JM became a favorite student of William Dewitt Alexander, who was later appointed the school’s Headmaster, and eventually became Surveyor-General of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Alexander taught the young man surveying, and while JM was still in his late teens, he got the job to lay out the road from Hilo to the town of Volcano on the Big Island, a route that everyone headed that way still drives today.
Following his Divinity School experience, JM was ordained as a Minister in the Congregational Church, and by the beginning of 1896 was ready to take up his first church post, serving a congregation in a small coastal town in the state of Washington. Just before that, however, he went on a long-planned trip to Hawaii to visit his mother, then still living at Laupahoehoe on the Big Island. After the visit, JM returned by steamer from Hilo to Honolulu, only to find that the boat that would carry him back to the Mainland was unexpectedly delayed, and would not sail for another week. This allowed time for what JM thought would be a quick side trip to Kauai to visit old friends from his Punahou days.
One of those friends was Dr. Jared Smith, at the time the sole Western-educated doctor on the entire Island. Smith was concerned about the long-unmet need for a minister who could serve both Kauai’s Hawaiian people and its newly-arrived English-speaking residents. Ordained ministers fluent in the Hawaiian language who also possessed extensive first-hand experience of the islands and their peoples were an extremely rare commodity, and Dr. Smith seized the opportunity to present JM with a simple but compelling argument: there are many candidates who can minister to the fine people of the state of Washington, he said, but you are the only one with what it takes to serve here on Kauai.
Family lore doesn’t record how JM extricated himself from his obligations in Washington, but we know he did, because church records indicate that he gave his first sermon on Kauai on the first Sunday in May 1896. According to Bill “Peacher” Lydgate, JM’s youngest son and Emily and Will’s Grandfather, JM would conduct the service for the English-speaking congregation at the church in Lihue in the morning. Then Peacher and his three older brothers would hitch up the horse cart and drive Father from Lihue to Koloa, where he preached an afternoon sermon in Hawaiian. Occasionally after the service, while JM socialized with his parishioners, there was time for the Minister’s four boys to ride the horse cart down the dirt roads to a great bodysurfing spot at Poipu, now called Brennecke’s, which was then a broad sandy beach with an excellent left.
JM’s interest in the literary and other non-material aspects of existence led him to change the spelling of his last name from Lidgate, as it was written on his birth certificate, to Lydgate, in honor of a family ancestor, the Fifteenth-Century English poet John Lydgate. This change also served to distinguish JM from his siblings, who retained the original Lidgate spelling, and who went on to acquire considerable wealth through the sugar industry. As a further distinguishing characteristic, JM renounced his original citizenship, and had himself made a naturalized subject of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Perhaps most significant of all, throughout his life JM elected never to purchase real estate, believing that he could not serve his community to the fullest if he were in thrall to the self-interest of active membership in the landowner class. As a result, when he died at the age of 68 in 1922, he left neither money nor property, and his widow, Helen Elwell Lydgate, was obliged to move away from Kauai to live with her grown sons and their families on the Mainland.
What JM did leave, however, was a lasting legacy of community building and stewardship of the ‘aina. He was a founder and an early supporter of the YMCA, the Garden Island Newspaper, the Kauai Historical Society and the Public Library. Although it took many years, before the end of his life he fulfilled one of the first goals he set for his ministry when he moved to Kauai: to visit every dwelling, and to get to know every single family, on the entire island. As a small-town minister, and one of the very few Kauai residents not of Hawaiian blood who was completely fluent in the Hawaiian language, JM’s was an important voice for inclusion and tolerance, as well as for the protection and preservation of Hawaiian lands and culture. Continuing his surveying work, JM laid out a number of critical routes on Kauai, including the Wainiha Power Line on the North Shore, but his survey discoveries in the area of the Wailua River in Kapa’a were his most significant.
JM was the first in the English-speaking community to recognize and map the chain of heiau, ancient Hawaiian temples, that stretches inland from the Wailua river’s mouth. Beginning with a sanctuary or “City of Refuge” adjacent to the beach, this progression of linked sacred areas culminates in Hikini A Ka La, at the summit of the hill across from Opaeka’a Falls, one of the most culturally significant sites in the entire Hawaiian Islands. JM’s dedication to preserving these sites placed him at odds with his neighbors in Kauai’s influential sugar industry, however: in that era, few recent arrivals viewed Hawaiian culture as a thing of value. Despite the fact that they were sacred to the Hawaiian people, the only valuable thing most people saw in heiau was a large quantity of stone, ideal for cane field irrigation ditches, that was free for the taking. Best of all, the stone was conveniently piled right next to the road.
In retrospect it seems remarkable that through the moral force of his presence, JM was able to influence enough people, inside church and out, to prevent wholesale destruction of these sites. Nonetheless he succeeded, and in the 1930’s the Territory of Hawaii dedicated a large area of land at the mouth of the Wailua River as Lydgate Park, in grateful recognition for JM’s work to preserve and honor Hawaiian culture, as well as to enrich the lives of all Kauaians.
Thanks to John Mortimer Lydgate’s firm views about not owning property, the land that became Steelgrass Farm was not passed down to Emily and Will from their Great-Grandfather by inheritance, but rather purchased in the 1990’s. At that time, the upper regions of the eight-acre site were grassy meadow, but most of what would soon be productive farmland was invasive scrub, and alien tree species such as Java plum, Christmasberry, albesia, guava, camphor, and African tulip. We found no evidence of earlier plantation-era pineapple or sugarcane, but feral taro and artifacts unearthed in the stream lowlands suggest that taro and rice may have been grown here during the first half of the century just past.
We removed the scrub and a majority of the alien species, and then began the long process of replanting. With the exception of one large albesia and several camphor and other trees, everything growing on the entire eight-acre site, including all the bamboo, was brought here as a seed or a cutting, or as a seedling in a one-gallon pot. Our decisions about what to plant were guided by two principles. First, for practical reasons, we wanted varieties that provide food, so that we could enjoy an edible landscape. Second, for spiritual reasons, we wanted a tranquil, meditative landscape that would nourish the soul, as the fruits and edible plants nourished the body.
Our fruit tree selections were guided by our own experience of what grows well in our part of the island. Citrus, of course, including limes and Meyer lemons, juice oranges and two specialty varieties, a Moro Blood orange and a Key lime. Avocados, of course, but as with citrus, we wanted to be careful not to over-plant. Facing several hundred pounds of ripe fruit that needs to be eaten, sold, processed or otherwise dealt with inside a period of a few days can be a problem, especially if you have finite manpower. So we limited ourselves to three avocado varieties, Fuerte, Haas and Zutano. When we first acquired the property there was a feral avocado tree growing right where the entry drive had to be located. (We suspect the variety was Zutano, but we called its fruits “Green Goddess” for their pale green thin skin and delicious flesh.) We couldn’t stand to lose this productive tree, so we asked our excavator operator dig the largest possible hole, and held our breaths as we transplanted it to a new location near the site where the future Main House was planned. To our delight, the tree survived, and now bears profusely.
Our candidate for the fruit that must have grown at the center of the biblical Garden of Eden has always been mango, and we found a spot near the stream for our favorite variety, Haden. We also planted a White Pirie and two Fairchilds, in each case selecting trees whose fruiting stock had been grafted onto a hardier root stock. Now seven years old, the White Pirie has not yet borne fruit, but the Haden and the Fairchilds have yielded hundreds of pounds. Mango trees have the intriguing custom of fruiting irregularly, with some on-years and some off-years, a custom which of course interacts with local growing conditions. Factors at hand when the tree blossoms, such as too much or not enough wind, sun, rain, nighttime cool or daytime heat, dramatically influence the size and even the very existence of a crop.
This is particularly true with our feral mango, a huge tree near the stream on the south side of the Farm that was knocked down -- but not out -- by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. In the intervening years, its branches have responded to their reorientation in the horizontal plane by twisting themselves upright, with the result that the plant today is more like a neighborhood than a tree, branches sprouting upward from a trunk that hugs the ground over an area of several hundred square feet on a steep hillside above the stream. In keeping with mango’s custom of sporadic fruiting, we haven’t had a crop for the past couple of years, but the year before that, this magnificent creature fruited so heavily, and in such perfect sequence, that we were able to keep pace with its ripening output only by insisting that everyone in the family consume six mangoes a day, every day, a memorable feast that began on the Fourth of July and did not end until the week after Labor Day.
We planned multiple banana patches, and planted both full size and dwarf Williams and apple varieties. All fruited generously for a couple of years, but then began to show strange symptoms: the fruits would emerge, but never ripen, and the leaves grew warped and stunted. We soon learned that this was the effect of Banana Bunchy Top Virus, which has regrettably spread island-wide. We’ve removed most of the damaged plants, leaving some rhizomes in the ground so we can monitor the keikis (new sprouts) for signs of disease. Our hope is that eventually the virus will mutate or maybe just peter out, and that the plants will return to health. If they don’t, our alternative is to replace them with varieties not susceptible to the virus.
If the Garden of Eden had a first runner-up for the plant at its center, our vote would be for Soursop, sometimes called custard apple. This astonishing fruit, a bizarre dark-green lobed and curling shape studded with spikes, has a truly sublime taste. Soursop’s creamy-white flesh houses big shiny, slippery black seeds, which are great fun to spit out. Its taste is sweet lemon-lime vanilla custard, mixed with coconut, pineapple and a dash of strawberry. Unlike Attemoya and Cherimoya, its firmer cousins in the moya family, which retain their firmness for as long as a week, Soursop has a shelf life that can best be described as whoops, too late.
Enjoying Soursop at its peak of freshness requires constant vigilance, so as the fruits get close to maturity, we visit the tree once or twice a day to check for ripeness. We pick when the first hint of softening appears, and set the fruit on the kitchen counter. For the next twelve to twenty-four hours the soursop will continue to ripen, and when the time is right, into the icebox it goes for a couple of hours to chill, and then get eaten. If we miss our timing and leave fruits on the tree too long, they plop to the ground; left in the kitchen for too long, they do the kitchen-counter equivalent of plopping, which is more of an ooze. But when you are lucky enough to eat one at the peak of ripeness, there’s nothing tastier in the world, in or outside of Eden.
As if enduring their own expulsion from the Garden, at least here on Kauai, apples, grapes, figs, plums, peaches, pears and so many temperate climate fruits won’t grow at Steelgrass Farm, for the seemingly-odd reason that it never gets cold enough. Cold enough? And here we were thinking that fruits need heat and sunshine to grow….. Our one fig tree, the poor thing now seven years in the ground and barely four feet tall, reminds us that although it is healthy, and bears a proud but lonely fig every couple of months, it’s not happy in our climate, and never will be. Meditating on the fig’s climate mismatch dilemma reminds us of its human analogue, for which our Farm’s library and VCR collection offer two examples: Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film Dersu Uzala, and the story of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, in the 1991 biography by Robert Kanigel, titled The Man Who Knew Infinity. Both works depict the sad impossibility of trying to survive in a climate in which you can’t.
Back to success, we’ve entered into a negotiated ceasefire with two plants that produce some of our favorite fruits, but are also among Hawaii’s most aggressive alien invaders: guava, and passion fruit, known by its local name lilikoi. Guava (with slightly-less-than-tennis-ball size yellow fruit) and strawberry guava (big-marble-size red fruit) multiply exponentially in tropical climates by virtue of the fact that their brightly colored fruits are highly visible -- and highly appealing -- to local birds. Each contains hundreds of small seeds, which pass unaffected through the birds’ digestive tracts, after which their avian hosts conveniently distribute them everywhere in their droppings, each seed lovingly plopped on the ground in a fertilizer-rich package that virtually guarantees germination and the birth of yet another guava tree.
The same seed-dispersal process, fatally effective in an island ecosystem where native plants have little ability to compete, applies to the seeds of the lilikoi or granadillo, a vine native to South America that grows today throughout Kauai. Lilikoi is also known as passion fruit, a name that arose in the Sixteenth Century when European invaders stumbled upon a New World plant that seemed a good omen for the success of their mission. They called it the passion flower because its complex structure and design reminded them of symbols associated with religious narratives of the persecution, murder and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The five sepals and five petals of the lilikoi flower, which are similar in appearance, are thought to represent Christ’s twelve disciples, minus Judas and Peter. Subtracting these two from the original twelve made sense to the Christian invaders, because it was Judas who identified Jesus to the arresting Roman soldiers, and Peter who fulfilled Jesus’ prediction that he would deny Him three times before the crowing of the cock. The flower’s double row of colored filaments, known as the corona, signifies both the halo around Christ's head, and His crown of thorns. The five stamens and the three spreading styles with their flattened heads symbolize the wounds on Christ’s body, and the nails through His hands and feet, respectively. The tendrils resemble the whips used to scourge Christ, and the lobed leaves evoke the clutching hands of the soldiers.
South America is the place of origin of many of the edible plants we grow on Steelgrass Farm. In addition to lilikoi, our cacao, vanilla and acerola or Vitamin-C tree are natives of that region. Another interesting tree from equatorial mid-America is the jaboticaba, a shrub-like plant that bears dark purple grape-sized fruit growing directly from the trunk. The purple skin possesses an intense piney flavor, bordering on turpentine, while the creamy-white pulp that surrounds the single large black seed has a lemon-lime flavor.
Next to our jaboticaba is a Star Fruit tree, also known as Carambola, a species that is thought to originate in Sri Lanka, an island off the southeastern coast of India. Star Fruit has a marvelous crunchy texture, crisp yet fluid, and as the fruits become riper and more orange in color, their sweetness increases. In preparing meals, we use it as either a fruit or a vegetable; its crisp texture makes it a welcome addition to salads. The fruit is an elongated oval, with five ribs, so that when you slice it crossways, you get five-pointed stars, and a visually delightful garnish that’s equally delicious.
The Hawaii archipelago is not among the original Spice Islands, and we’re fairly far from the equator as tropical islands go (at 20 degrees north of the equator, Kauai is close to the northern growing region boundary for many tropical fruiting plants.) Nonetheless, we grow as many spice and seasoning plants as our culinary imagination will permit. These include Kaffir lime, a small citrus tree whose dimpled fruits are incredibly bitter, but whose leaves are splendid addition to Thai stir-fry, as well as to any dish with coconut milk; Turkish Bay, a Mediterranean-climate tree that, like figs and wine grapes, isn’t particularly happy here due to the lack of night-time cold temperatures; Allspice; marjoram, oregano, thyme and dill, and several members of the genus capsicum, the peppers, with progressively greater degrees of hotness. At the middle of the hotness scale, about five on a scale of ten, is an heirloom pepper variety known as Bulgarian Carrot. Further up the scale at six or seven is another heirloom, the Peruvian Purple, and close to the top, at eight or nine, is the Hawaiian Chili pepper.
Other fruits at Steelgrass Farm are the lychee, of which we have several dwarf varieties, papaya, rose apple, rambutan, breadfruit , cinnamon, and the ubiquitous coconut.
Our bamboo plantings include two dozen species, selected for their usefulness in building construction, crafts and furniture, and making musical instruments. Although the shoots of many of our species are also edible, our interest in using the mature culms has made it difficult for us to sacrifice them by harvesting and cooking. We were careful to plant mostly sympodial or clumping varieties of bamboo, which grow via gradual expansion of the diameter of their roughly circular footprint, rather than monopodial or running bamboos, which carpet the territory around them with a network of surface roots, each of which sends up new shoots at varying distances from the mother plant. The one exception to our focus on sympodial varieties was Tonkin Cane (arundinaria amabilis). This is a running bamboo, but we were able to plant it in an isolated location with natural barriers to prevent over-expansion.
As our plantings approach maturity, the tallest have reached heights of fifty feet. Guadua angustifolia, the South American timber variety, is a “loose clumper”, sending up its new shoots a few feet from one another, a distance that makes the clump pleasantly walkable. Bambusa lako, commonly known as Timor black bamboo, and gigantochloa atroviolacea are our main black varieties. Bambusa ventricosa, also called “Buddha Belly”, is developing nicely swollen nodes. Although the feathery Mexican weeping bamboo, otatea acuminata var. aztecorum is pretty to look at, we haven’t been able to find uses for its wood.
Our giant yellow bamboo, schizostachyum brachicladum, has produced some fine-sounding flutes from its narrower culms. As these reach a diameter of four inches, however, with internode lengths of up to three feet, they are lending themselves more to percussion instruments. Bambusa textilis, weaver’s bamboo, and dendrocalamus asper var. hittam continue skyward.
Like the other Hawaiian Islands, Kauai began losing its two monocrops, sugar and pineapple, not long after the end of the Second World War. Within the space of a generation, our island’s lowlands went from intensive deliberate cultivation, based on the colonial plantation model, to near-total abandonment. The vast areas on Kauai today covered by open fields, which island visitors view as pleasantly green and inviting, are actually testaments to the failure of plantation-style monocropping. These abandoned fields now are interspersed with tall grasses and groves of younger trees, unfortunately representing species that are among the most aggressive of our many plant invaders.
Steelgrass Farm is committed to helping our island return to agriculture, but in a way that makes sense given the realities of today’s social and economic circumstances. In our view, large-scale industrial agriculture, with its reliance on monocropping and its requirement for intensive capital investment in machinery and infrastructure, is unlikely to work. Instead, we believe the key to restoring farm viability on Kauai has to do with converting as many of its residents as possible into part-time farmers, and making it practical and economically viable for multiple smallholders to grow diversified crops. In order to gain experience with crops that fit this vision, and to educate our Kauai neighbors about how to plant, tend, harvest and market them, we’ve dedicated Steelgrass as a teaching farm specializing in three crops: timber bamboo, vanilla, and theobroma cacao, the chocolate tree.
Visit our GIFT SHOP for Chocolate, Cacao Nibs, Kauai's finest organic palm-blossom honey
and fragrant Vanilla Beans. We ship everywhere.