Ene’io Botanical Gardens

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Wed 12 Sep 2018 22:43

Once upon a time, there was a small boy who lived in a village on Vava’u Island, Tonga. He’d never left the island nor had he ever seen a map of the world. Every week he went to Sunday School, and despite it being a bit boring, there were some good stories. His favourite was about the Garden of Eden.

He decided that he would like to plant a garden like the one in the story. Luckily for him, at that time, the King of Tonga and the government decided to allocate land. Up until then, his father and the other men had had the use of a plot but they didn’t own it. Deeds were drawn up and the men became land owners. As there was still land available, it was handed out to the sons, first to the eldest, then to the second, and so on, until all the eligible land was distributed. Although only 8 years old, the small boy was given a plot. The law required each new owner to plant 200 coconut palms and this he did with his father. This was the beginning of Ene’io Garden. 

The boy was Haniteli Fa’anunu. As a young man he briefly left Tonga to study agriculture in Fiji. Back home, he was instrumental in re-introducing several native bird species threatened with extinction and within a few years became the Tongan expert on vanilla, renowned throughout the Pacific. He was later promoted to director for the Department for Agriculture, reporting directly to the Minister for Agriculture, now King Tupou VI.


Vanilla growing naturally on Haniteli’s land

Throughout the years, he had added many species from the tropics to his collection, and the garden was maturing. In 2006 Queen Sialote officially opened it as Ene’io Botanical Gardens.

Haniteli picked us up in town on a grey misty morning. As we drove out to Ene’io, we asked him about the crops growing along the road. We were struck by how fertile the land looked, particularly in comparison with Niue. A couple of men were preparing the land to plant cava, the root from which a traditional fermented drink is made. That same field was already growing coconut palms, kapé and taro, an impressive example of agroforestry. In Vava’u, the land can be exploited for 8 to 10 years before needing to rest, in Niue this was 4 years. On the approach to a village, we passed a large area that looked like it had been plowed underneath the coconut palms. Our guide explained that often church groups take out a lease and then subdivide the land between the men in the group. Tongan men are very competitive and each one strives to grow the best produce.

“Without the competition, Tongans aren’t very motivated.” Haniteli added.

The cloud had lifted and the tropical sun was dazzling over the lagoon. The tour we had signed up for included bird watching so the first thing Haniteli did was sit us down in front of a ‘Birds of Tonga’ pamphlet and introduce us to those we might see. It was an excellent way to begin. Most Tongan birds are endangered, and although many are hunted for food, the threat is mostly caused by habitat loss. There used to be seven sawmills in Vava’u, today there are none, because all the timber trees have gone. He went on to tell us about some disastrous introductions, one of which was by the previous king who released a pair of pigeons he had been given as a present, they have bred particularly successfully and are now a major pest.


Haniteli leading the way

Ene’io Botanical Gardens cover 22 acres on the east coast where the land is less fertile and more arid than the plots we had passed along the road. This is because when Tonga’s volcano islands erupted, less ash landed on the eastern side of the archipelago, so the soils aren’t as deep and the climate is drier. The plants in the garden include a mixture of ancient introductions (by the Polynesians who came from east Asia and Taiwan) and specimens collected by Haniteli on his travels. There was a lot to take in, so here are a few snippets we found particularly interesting.

The Polynesians brought with them dogs, pigs and chickens and a great number of useful trees. I find it curious that none of these became invasive species, unlike many plants introduced later by the missionaries. 


Nonu (also known as ‘noni’) (Morinda citrifolia, Indian mulberry), the fruit was and continues to be used for medicinal purposes. 

For fibre, to make containers and ceremonial fabrics (clothing was introduced by the missionaries), the Polynesians brought Pandanus. In Tonga there are 9 varieties, each providing a different colour. The leaves are cut and the serrated edge removed, then they are scolded and soaked for several days in the ocean.


Soaking Pandanus in the ocean

Haniteli answered our long standing coconut conundrum, are all coconut palms the same? In Tonga there are 14 varieties of coconut. He told us that the palms produce 13 fronds per year, a new leaf for each lunar phase, a way of recording the passing of time before calendars. Apparently in Tonga, nobody processes copra (coconut flesh made into oil) anymore, this is because the price is just too low. It goes to show how important the government subsidy in French Polynesia is, where copra is the main source of income for many people in the Marquesas and the Tuamotu archipelagos. 

As we walked around the garden, Haniteli regaled us with stories. In a meeting with Indian diplomats, he proudly told them about the 24 varieties of mango in Tonga. They scoffed: “Twenty-four? We have over a thousand!”


Haniteli showing Franco something interesting

Our guide’s pet hate is ‘untidy trees’, those with large leaves that are deciduous. He is tired of sweeping leaves up from the paths and wishes he had planted them away from the tracks, deep in the forest. 


A small section of the garden

Tongans have a great sense of humour and enjoy teasing each other. There is a tree that is used to make a medicine to reduce groin inflammation. No Tongan man will allow this plant to be grown in his garden, as he would be teased remorselessly about his groin problems. Another produces nuts that are very nutritious but make you fart. Its name is ‘Ifi’ which means ‘the warrior that blows’.


Uhi, no Tongan man will grow this tree on his land


Ifi - The Windy Warrior

During our walk through the botanical gardens, we were amazed to see several different birds including the very pretty Kulukulu fruit dove which has a green back, a red cap, a white neck and chest and a yellow undertail, a small yellow bird, the Tongan whistler (Pachycephala jacquinoti) and the white-collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) which looks very similar to the Pahi pahi, the endemic bird we went in search of on Tahuata in the Marquesas. On the road to the gardens, we had seen the pekepeka (Pacific swallow, Hirundo tahitica) and the banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis), so we were rather pleased.


White-collared kingfisher


We left the formal part of the gardens behind and climbed up onto the headland. Haniteli has leased this land from the government and let it go wild. A botanist friend visited and found 45 species new to Tonga, including a one leaf orchid on just one transect in this area.


The Ene’io lagoon, much prettier at high tide

At the end of our walk, we returned to Ene’io beach front restaurant for lunch. We’d been on Sunday for the Tongan feast and the lady who’d carved the roast pig recognised us and was delighted to see us. I’d badgered her to give me the recipe for one of the dishes but she’d told me she couldn’t and we’d had a laugh. I’d concluded she wasn’t the chef so didn’t know.

Lunch was fish and chips with a salad made from local ingredients. I asked the lady for the salad recipe and again she declined and disappeared into the kitchen. Haniteli muttered something in Tongan and told us he had been the first to offer a feast, on a Friday, but then lots of other people had copied him, also holding their feasts on Fridays, in the end he moved his to Sunday. Still I didn’t understand.

As we prepared to leave Franco paid the lady. I teased:

“So you’re definitely not going to give me that recipe?” I’d given up on getting it, but hadn’t expected the look of panic in her eyes as she glanced towards Haniteli. “Had I said something wrong?” I wondered.

A last minute dash for the loo. As I was coming out, the lady was going in, she thrust something into my hand and told me not to say anything. In my palm was a folded serviette on which she had written the recipe for the sweet potato fritters. Back in the restaurant we were both grinning like Cheshire cats and looking conspiratorially guilty. Franco asked me what was going on, luckily Haniteli seemed oblivious.

“When are you leaving?” She asked. We were on our way out and Haniteli was already in the driver’s seat. 

As the van turned around, the lady rushed over to the van and grasped my hand through the open window. We wished each other well. Yet another secret had been passed on, this time the serviette was the salad recipe scribbled hastily. 

(Don’t worry, Haniteli, we’ll enjoy your recipes but I’ll never pass them on!)