Shangri La In Bloom

To spend an afternoon with members of The Garden Club of Honolulu is many things: entertaining, enlightening, eye-opening and, to be completely honest, a bit of a whirlwind.

Conversations about seedlings and growing methods seem like listening to some unknown language of expertise. So it’s easy to mistake the group as one only interested in gardening. Or so it would appear to any wide-eyed spectator.


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Using Doris Duke's Shangri La and its Persian art and gardens (inset photo) as inspiration, The Garden Club of Honolulu unveils its every-three-years flower and horticulture show May 8-10 at Honolulu Museum of Art. Pictured are ‘Shangri La: The Flower Show' co-chairs Jan Tucker and Kitty Wo NATHALIE WALKER PHOTO

Because beyond a veneer that speaks only of a shared interest in nature and its beauty, The Garden Club of Honolulu is a place where education, civic improvement and creativity are in full bloom.

It’s this harmony between hobby and community values that has been the impetus of the group since its inception in 1930. Currently, The Garden Club of Honolulu is one of 201 member clubs of The Garden Club of America.

“Our members work to promote the love of gardening and beauty of floral design, to protect and improve the environment and to educate our community in conservation and sustainability,” says president Jan George.

The Garden Club of Honolulu’s fundraising efforts have, for example, supported projects including Kawainui Marsh, a healing garden at Straub Hospital, and landscaping at Diamond Head Crater Peace Park and The Nature Conservancy. Club members also have worked with Women’s Community Correctional Center to develop its inmates’ green thumbs.

More than anything, though, The Garden Club of Honolulu is like a tightly knit sisterhood.

“There’s a wonderful sense of camaraderie,” notes Claire Johnson.

Johnson and others like Emmy Seymour have been members of the club for more than 30 years.

“There are a lot of people I’ve met through the club whom I wouldn’t have met in another way, so it’s been wonderful,” says Seymour.

Classes throughout the year, some of which are open to the public and take place at Lyon Arboretum, ensure members constantly are learning. Topics range from the obvious in horticulture and floral design to the more artistic, like photography.

All of it serves as encouragement to members in their own practices and as stewards in the community.

“You touch places that need plants, but it gives you a reason to do your best in growing something,” says Pat Wassel. “That’s what we like.”

“This is a group that loves sharing and teaching and learning and laughing,” adds George.

It’s a passion The Garden Club of Honolulu puts on full display only once every three years, when it presents its Major Flower and Horticulture Show. This year, it’s set for Mother’s Day weekend, May 8-10, at Honolulu Museum of Art, and will explore the theme “Shangri La: The Flower Show.”


“Shangri La is a lot of different things to a lot of people,” says Jan Tucker.

Together, she and Kitty Wo co-chair “Shangri La: The Flower Show.” It’s a theme that draws meaning in many different ways designed to inspire just about anyone.

In Lost Horizon, for instance, author James Hilton weaves a tale of a mythical place of tranquil awe that Shangri La has since become associated with. Overlooking Cromwell’s Beach at Diamond Head, Doris Duke’s Shangri La estate, rich with Islamic art, creates a different sense of wonderment.

And then there is Hawaii itself, long thought of as a paradisiac place.

“We thought, ‘How can we make it broad enough so that it would be interesting and embraced by our club members and the public?'” explains Wo.

It’s a theme for a show that comes at no greater time for The Garden Club of Honolulu and Honolulu Museum of Art. Its current exhibit is “Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art.”

Then of course, there’s Duke’s estate, with which the museum works in conjunction.

“A big part of the mission of the museum is to bring great art and people together,” says Stephan Jost, Honolulu Museum of Art director. “Once you see the flower show, you quickly realize that the members of (The Garden Club of Honolulu) are creating great works of art out of plants and flowers. It only makes sense that we host the event in the museum.”

This will be one of only a few times the club ever has tied its show with an exhibit at the museum.

“I think one of the things that’s especially nice is because we’re going on the theme of the museum’s Shangri La exhibit, it really enhances both our show … and the formal show going on for the museum,” says Wassel.

It is, they say, exciting and will provide an enriching experience to any who visit.

And with a show so closely connected to an exhibit displaying Islamic art, perhaps the even bigger feat this club will accomplish is an understanding of Iranian culture. At a time when this nation’s ties with Iran are tenuous, maybe Shangri La should best be thought of as a source of peace and understanding.


By the time “Shangri La: The Flower Show” opens to the public, club members will be done designing entries in a number of different divisions and categories.

While the show serves as a competition of sorts for participating members, the results really are the club’s gift to the community.

“The purpose of the show is to set standards of artistic and horticultural excellence, to broaden knowledge and to share the beauty of the show with fellow club members and the public,” explains Wo.

To say there will be a lot to see at “Shangri La: The Flower Show” is a gross understatement. The Garden Club of Honolulu has been meticulously planning and preparing for this three-day event.

On display will be everything from potted plants and artistically arranged flowers to bigger installation projects — all designed to emulate the ethereal beauty of Shangri La.

Education division co-chairwomen Elizabeth Lowrey and Leslie Almeida, for instance, will transform Honolulu Museum of Art’s Mediterranean Courtyard into a Persian garden using local plants. Members of the club for about three years now, it is their first time participating in the club’s Major Flower and Horticulture Show.

“We’ve learned a lot,” says Lowrey. “It’s been really fun.”

Lowrey, who just visited Spain last year, hopes that an encounter in the duo’s Persian garden will provide a realistic experience — especially for those who have never seen one firsthand.

“To be in the space and to feel that space is very different from just looking at a picture in a book,” she notes.

In another area, Barbara Kuljis, chairwoman of the conservation division, will create an ahupua‘a using plants and other appropriate materials. The exhibit, which will emphasize an ahupua‘a in an urban setting, is one Kuljis hopes will resonate with visitors.

“We want people to get it — that water is a life force,” she says. “We call it a lifeblood, so we need to take care of it, whether you’re up at the top or down on the shoreline.”

Kuljis’ ahupua‘a also will feature “challenge plants,” grown by club members. About a year ago, National Tropical Botanical Gardens donated Acacia koai‘a (a relative of the koa tree) to The Garden Club of Honolulu.

Members then germinated two seeds each, cultivating both in two different growing conditions — one with biochar and another without.

The experience not only allowed members to experiment with different soil enhancements, but their efforts also will go toward a good cause. Following the show, The Garden Club of Honolulu will donate the Acacia koai‘a to Papahana Kualoa. Located in Haiku Valley, the nonprofit organization offers programs that focus on environmental preservation and sustainability.

But “Shangri La: The Flower Show” will feature much more than just the expected flora. Divisions including photography, botanical jewelry and, new this year, needlework show unexpected ways of looking at nature.

A dried rose isn’t a dead flower. It can be painted and transformed into a piece of jewelry.

“It gives you an enjoyment and it also makes you appreciate the geometry of nature,” says Wassel, who serves as botanical jewelry division chairwoman.

“You look at something in a different way. You look at a pine cone and tear off one of the leaflets, and that’s like a little tiny fan for a fairy.”

Ultimately, that’s what “Shangri La: The Flower Show” is about — a sublimely fun experience, much like one would expect at Shangri La. And with so much to see, The Garden Club of Honolulu is confident there will be something for everyone to enjoy.

“We hope to transform the museum for a few days into a magical place,” says Tucker. “We’re very excited.”

For more information about Shangri La: The Flower Show, visit For more information about The Garden Club of Honolulu and its Stepping Stones classes that are open to the public, visit