What was once a bulldozed dirt lot in Waikele is becoming a blossoming Native Hawaiian forest thanks to a local developer.

For about five years, Peter Savio has spent several hours every Saturday, Sunday and holiday single-handedly tending to native plants, hacking down invasive haole koa trees, picking vine-grown gourds and clearing pathways into his nearly 500-acre parcel.

Savio, who owns the Pagoda Hotel among other properties, said he’s already planted 200 varieties of native plants – including ohia, koa and hau trees – and he aims to plant them all. All 1,400 of them. 

“I figure I could plant for the next hundred years,” he said. “So I’ll be 170.”

Peter Savio walks thru a part of his property at Kipapa. He started planting native Hawaiian trees and plants that include Hau and Koa.
Peter Savio says his gardening supports the bugs and birds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Gardening brings Savio joy, but he said that’s not the only reason he labors every week on the project.

Of all the plant varieties native to Hawaii, nearly 90% are found nowhere else in the world, according to the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Despite their diversity, many native plant species have declined amid the clearing of land for agriculture and the introduction of invasive plants and animals.

The so-called “Endangered Species Capital of the World,” Hawaii has already experienced the permanent loss of 100 plant types, and 366 are listed by the federal and state government as endangered or threatened, according to the state. While Hawaii comprises less than 1% of the United States’ land mass, the state contains 44% of the country’s endangered and threatened species.

Peter Savio points out a rare flower and said he forgot the name.
Savio likes to share his plants with friends. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Savio, a self-proclaimed “conservative liberal,” says he’s doing what he won’t wait for the government to do. 

“Do you know of anywhere in Honolulu you can find a koa tree? Any park, any school, any government building?” Savio asked. “The State of Hawaii and the City Council, they’re all talk. They talk about preserving the nature, preserving the bird life, preserving Hawaiian culture. Yet we don’t plant native plants anywhere.” 

Honolulu’s official tree is a rainbow shower tree, a non-native plant, Savio lamented. The government should be required to plant native trees on public land, he said. 

Savio’s effort is “wonderful,” said Matt Keir, a botanist with the Division of Forestry and Wildlife. He said it complements the work being done by the state and other groups to reforest areas with native species.

“While agencies might be able to go up mauka and take care of the forest reserve areas, it really is up to somebody like Peter to take the initiative on these smaller parcels on private lands,” he said. “We should encourage everyone to plant pono.”

Native plants have adapted to Hawaii’s climate over hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years, Keir said. They’re able to withstand environmental extremes better than their invasive counterparts and they’re better integrated into their environment. Non-native species like banyan trees can outgrow their place, rip up hillsides and cause rockfall, Keir said.

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Planting more natives will invite pollinators and other invertebrates that will contribute to the area’s ecosystem, according to Keir.

Savio said he welcomes visitors to his forest as long as they call ahead or announce themselves loudly when they arrive. As a Vietnam War veteran, he said he doesn’t like to be surprised.

Most of the time, he’s out there alone. He said his hobby keeps him out of the hair of his wife and business partner, Phyllis, who “thinks I’m crazy.”

“I keep on telling her: Would you rather have me home all day every weekend bothering you?” he said. “She goes, ‘Yeah, you got a point.'”

Karl Veto Baker, a hula teacher and caretaker of Queen Liliuokalani’s garden, has exchanged natural goods with Savio including gourds, ti leaves, ferns used for hula dressing and wauke, the plant that goes into kapa used for clothing. The effort by Savio, a German Italian born in Hilo, is “awesome,” Baker said.

“This man doesn’t have an ounce of Hawaiian, but he is, in my mind, someone who does Hawaiian culture better than most,” Baker said. “When you champion Hawaiian issues, you champion issues of Hawaii, not just for Hawaiians but for all that live here.”

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