Photo by Melody

The Sullivan Garden: A tribute to a magnificent Hawaiian garden devoted to palm trees

By Geoff Stein (palmbobJuly 19, 2009

This article is about one of the most amazing and unique collections of palm trees in the entire world.

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One of the best known and loved palm enthusiasts in southern California is Pauleen Sullivan, a true palm aficionado and palm lover.  I first met Pauleen at a local palm meeting when I just getting interested in palms, at the very end of the last century.  I had heard about Pauleen and all her palm pioneering and growing accomplishments (most which I probably have forgotten) and expected to meet a granola-crunching, no-nonsense, rugged whole-earthy type with strong arms and hiking boots.  Instead she rolled up in her wheelchair (a victim of polio), hair done up carefully and dressed smartly, with a huge smile on her face.  She was about the most unassuming and soft-spoken palm nut I have ever met (unless you see her at one of her apartment complexes where she rules with an iron fist, taking no guff from any of her tenants.)  Pauleen's enthusiasm for palm growing is so infectious that I am sure that is one of the main reasons I became interested in palm trees.  She invited me to her home and then to her apartment complexes, which she and her late husband bought years ago as investments (I am sure they were really just excuses to have more landscapes upon which to plant more palms.)  I never did get to meet her husband Joe, but the two of them are responsible for most of the palms growing in public landscapes in Ventura, California, from what I understand.

I was amazed at her mature and perfect collection of palms, cycads and other ornamentals (she was at one time very involved in the fern society, too, and her garden is full of gorgeous mature tree ferns.) I was inspired to do my best to try similar plantings in my new home.  Pauleen has many rare and mature palms which she has an uncanny knack for being able to grow while many others fail--including myself, I'm afraid.  But what is most amazing to me is that her large, diverse collection dates back to long before anyone else even knew about most of these species, and certainly no one thought they could grow in a non-tropical climate like Southern California.  Nowadays one can get almost all these plants from many different palm nurseries about the country, but Pauleen had to travel about the world in her wheelchair, collecting seeds and tiny seedlings and start her unique collection from scratch.  She grew dozens of species when everyone else told her could not be grown here.  Even today, with so many palms now available, her Southern California gardens are still some of the most impressive collections around.

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Some of California palms: probably her most well known palms are her massive Ceroxylon ventricosum (Andean Wax Palm) which towers over just about everything in Ventura (left) and her Dypsis decipiens, one of the largest and most impressive outside of Madagascar (right)

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Pauleen has an uncanny ability to grow palms and make them look good that no one else can even keep alive (left- Geonoma undata, and right, Lepidirrhachis mooreana)

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Pauleen appreciates other rare tropical plants as well (mature Cyathea spinulosum on left and a cool thin-leaf Cordyline fruticosa I have not seen anywhere else in California)

But her desire to be surrounded by hundreds of palms kept her from stopping there, even though she had accomplished so much.  Each time she visited the tropics, she would become depressed upon returning to California, where her palms looked relatively sad, yellowed and simply unable to attain their tropical splendor and perfection they did so easily in a tropical climate. (Even Pauleen's amazing collection of skillfully grown tropicals look somewhat anemic compared to similar collections in more tropical climates I have to say.)  So with the money she had saved up over the years, Pauleen acquired a large chunk of land (I think it's over 10 acres, but I don't really know how much over) near the east coast of the large island of Hawaii.  There she and her son, Terry, worked tirelessly for years, creating one of the most magnificent tributes to the palm that exists anywhere in the world.  There are many magnificent gardens all over the world, and dozens of excellent ones on the big Island of Hawaii, but the garden Pauleen created was unlike any of these other collections.

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left is Pauleen's excellently grown Pinanga coronata in Ventura, a marginal plant in southern California and not always an easy one to make look good... but then the same plant (right) in her Hawaii garden.  Not much of a comparison.

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left: better-than-average Beccariophoenix  madagascariensis in California... and Pauleen's in Hawaii on the right.  Which would you chose?

In planning her new Hawaiian garden Pauleen had several things she did and did not want:  1) She did not want to have a garden where it rained all day, as happens in many tropical gardens throughout the world.  Her land in Kapoho, Hawaii has a unique climate where it rains almost exclusively at night, with nearly every day being sunny (I can't tell you how amazing this is to me).  2) She did not want to have to battle mosquitoes.  For this feat she simply avoided anything that collected rainwater, such as ponds or bromeliads.  It works amazingly well--there are no mosquitoes on her property that I ever noticed, another astonishing feat.  3) Pauleen wanted a garden completely devoted to palms and she wanted each palm to stand out as an individual, not just a bit of foliage growing amongst a mass of other foliage (as one usually sees most palms in nature, or many crowded landscaped gardens as well).  For this she trucked in scores of dump-truck loads of black lava rock onto her property, literally raising the elevation of the entire plot of land by at least four feet.  This ‘soil' not only makes each palm stand out as a living sculpture, framed against an elegant, jet black background, but that sort of loosely-packed substrate is perfect for drainage and it makes moving palms easy (just pull them up- hardly does any root damage).  She had to cart in soil anyway as the land she originally purchased was solid lava, a very difficult surface to dig into and plant.  She then carved a long, winding drive through the garden and built a nice, simple home in the center of her palm paradise.  When the palm society visited her place in 2004 even the most jaded palm experts were amazed and impressed--not only by her vast palm collection (many hundreds of maturing perfectly grown species), but also by the unique format.  Not all the visitors liked it, but you can't please everyone.


                                                         Views of the garden showing the soil (now turning a bit brown) and the 'driveway'

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View of Pauleen's modest home in paradise; the place was crawling with palm nuts as they International Palm Society visited Pauleen's garden (middle);  Arnie Newman, a well known and respected naturalist/author hugs Pauleen remarking at her worldly accomplishments (right photo)

I visited the Sullivan Gardens in 2007 to see how the garden had evolved after it went on the market for sale.  Due to her advanced age, Pauleen's travel has been curtailed; she can no longer make the arduous journey in her wheelchair.  Her son is finding that taking care of this huge collection more than a full time job.  Although Terry is also a palm lover, he has other interests in life, so the hope is someone else who also loves palms will purchase and manage this unique collection.  The place was eerily quiet as I was the only person on the property save one silent, toiling groundskeeper, whose main task was watering and picking up fallen palm fronds.  The collection is all on automatic drip irrigation, but over the years, the system has faltered. Many of the carefully carved botanical signs had been driven over by the caretaker's golfcart, or they simply fell over and blew away, so many palms were unlabeled on my last visit.  I still have a large photographic stack of "unknowns" I would like to have identified.  Standing still, listening to the breeze gently blowing the palm fronds,  I could hear fronds falling every few minutes.  I can't tell you what a peaceful, meditative sound that is, hearing only the wind in the trees and the intermittent falling leaves.  I wanted to lie down and just listen to it all day. Those were the only sounds other than the crunch of my feet on the loose, dry lava as I wandered about for several hours, each palm amazing more than the last.  I was impressed by the size of some of the palms, remembering them as quite a bit smaller just four years earlier.  Things sure grow a LOT faster in Hawaii than they do in Southern California. Many of the mature palms fruit regularly and are source for seedlings for some of her other palm growing friends on the island.  Some of these fruiting palms are the only dependable seed sources for those species anywhere in the world.  The collection is simply irreplaceable and invaluable.  I wish I had the money to buy it and retire there.  I write this article in the hopes a permanent record will remain, should this amazing botanical garden cease to exist.

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Caretaker's cart and trailer full of palm fronds;  Sign getting buried and shot of drip hose (middle photo);  Carpoxylon macrospermum is a rare palm, but Pauleen's is making seed all the time so other's collect them (with her blessing, of course)

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Asterogyne maritima growing perfectly in a sea of black lava (left); Dypsis carlsmithii (one of many- middle);  A 'forest' of Dypsis lastellianas, one of Pauleen's favorite (right)

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 Cyrtostachys palms (another of Pauleen's favorites) are planted by the dozens (left);  this nearly pure white Bismarckia is a true specimen palm (middle);  beautiful Arenga sp. (right)

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The garden is full of colorful palms as well: Geonoma epetiolata (left), this variegated Foxy Lady Palm (Wodyetia x Veitchia) and the orange crown-shafted Euterpe catinga


The garden has more than its share of small, perfectly grown understory palm:  Licuala orbicularis (left), Licuala 'Mapu' (middle) and a Silver Joey Palm (right)

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Huge Metroxylon amicarum      Mauritiella armata with pale blue stems   a very rare Japanese native, Satakentia liukiuensis

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          Several unknown palms who's tags have been lost or trampled into the lava... anyone recognize these?

  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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