Landscaping the Fungi Way

December 20, 2013

By: Tina Bushnell and Richard Quinn  


Rick Quinn, Landscape Architect at HHF, and a fun-guy (Photo: HHF)

For HHF’s landscape architect, Rick Quinn, what started out as a simple exercise in creating a Native Hawaiian plant garden has turned into an ongoing adventure in Native Hawaiian ecosystem creation.  For several years now, Native Hawaiian plants have been incorporated into built landscapes. It is fairly common to see beach naupaka, kou and pōhinahina at the shopping center, surrounding government buildings and at the hotels in Hawai`i. Rick always wondered why the endemic (only from Hawai`i) plants fared worse than the indigenous (from around the Pacific) plant species in landscaping. Why was it that you couldn’t find a mature koa tree or an ohi`a lehua tree anywhere in Honolulu? Rick began to dig below the surface to answer this question, and what he came up with has completely shifted the way he approaches designed landscapes in Hawai`i.

Meanwhile, Rick was working on creating a Native Hawaiian garden at the University of Hawai`i Mānoa, Shideler College of Business. Originally, his design for the site included no native plants. However, when he saw the courtyard, he felt he could incorporate some natives there. At that time, he thought he could plant a little native Hawaiian garden and walk away from it. But then, he began to notice things. He noticed that the plants did better when they weren’t watered so much. He realized that the plant community needed a good layer of humus in order for them to be healthy. He asked the grounds crew to quit manicuring the native Hawaiian plants. Logs were brought in to mimic a forest and to add to the humus layer. Plant litter was left on the ground. He took some measures to control non-native pests such as earthworms, slugs and millipedes.


University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, Shideler College of Business Native Hawaiian Garden. From top to bottom, 2007, 2009, 2012. (Photos: Rick Quinn)

After some time, when he dug through the humus, he began to notice white, web-like structures that he realized were mycorrhizal fungi colonizing the soil.

mychorrizal fungi

The white web-like structures are mycorrhizal fungi. (Photo: Rick Quinn)

One of the many amazing things about mycorrhizal fungi is its ability to produce glomalin, a soil “super glue” that contains up to a third of the world’s stored soil carbon. Glomalin has the ability to sequester carbon due to the symbiotic relationship of plants and mycorrhizal fungi.  During this time of global warming and increased carbon output, mycorrhizal fungi are poised to be the super hero of environmental restoration.  As it turns out, Hawai`i’s native soils have some of the highest levels of glomalin in the world. This means that preserving and growing Hawai`i’s native soils, and fostering the plants that live in them, could have a global impact. Rick feels that Hawai`i’s landscapers and designers have a huge opportunity to bring our native ecosystems back, even in small scale landscaping projects, while at the same time tackling some of the planet’s problems such as carbon sequestration and aquifer recharge. You may soon be seeing koa and ohi`a trees growing in your nearest neighborhood park.

HHF has had the great fortune to begin applying some of these native ecosystem regeneration methods to some exciting new projects. Rick has planted a small area of native Hawaiian plants, including an ohi`a tree, at the IBM Building and is experimenting with inoculating artificial substrates with mycorrhizal fungi and transferring these substrates to the landscape sites to recreate native soil ecosystems. Other projects that will draw on his experience and understanding of native ecosystems are the Kawainui Marsh Restoration, the Makiki Baseyard Facility Renovation, and the Hawai`i Department of Transportation Statewide Noxious Invasive Pest Program. Check back late in 2014 to see how these projects are going.

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