David Orr Biography


David Orr, Trustee




David Orr has worked with the plant collections at Waimea Valley on the north shore of O’ahu for over 20 years. At different times his titles have ranged from Research Assistant to Superintendent of Collections to Director, under six different employers through the Valley’s colorful and contentious recent history. Now that the Valley is under stable, public ownership and is protected from any future development, David works for the non-profit, Hi’ipaka, LLC (dba Waimea Valley) which was set up by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. His current title is Botanical Collections Specialist.

David spent nine months as a student in Southern India, where he studied Ayurvedic medicine and the Tamil language before graduating with a B.A. in Asian Studies from the College of Wooster in 1972. After an attempted canoe trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, David worked for a few years as a deckhand on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to finance other travels including a year (1974) in South America. He moved to Hawai`i in 1976 living on the North Shore but working at an airport job to finance more backpack travels through the South Pacific in ’79 and East Africa for most of 1980. The next year he went to Hong Kong and Taiwan to teach English and study Mandarin. After a year of acquiring survival skills in Mandarin, David was one of the first independent travelers in newly opened China.

After returning to Hawai`i David started teaching at a Montessori elementary school in Manoa. He lived and taught classes in the Chinese cemetery pavilion and took docent courses at nearby Lyon Arboretum. The staff took him under wing, and he started to volunteer there regularly. When the school moved, David traveled to many gardens in Southeast Asia in’87 and ’88, and with funding and letters of introduction from the Directors of Lyon and Waimea, he mailed back plants and seeds to Hawai`i.

In the first few years working at Waimea, David took plants to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and went on plant collecting trips to Ecuador and Mexico. In ‘93 David went back to Kew to be in the first graduating class of their School of Horticulture’s eight-week International Diploma Course in Botanic Garden Management. From ’98 to 2000, after the Waimea Adventure Park took the botanical curation staff off the payroll, David was able to continue the record-keeping and propagation by making the Waimea Arboretum Foundation the employer of a staff of four. With much help from friends, David got grants from the City’s Department of Economic Development after the Foundation’s funds ran out and before the City condemned the 1875 acre property from private ownership.

In 2003 David was awarded the Center for Plant Conservation’s Star Award and two years later the Kauila Award from the Ka’ulunani Urban and Community Forestry Program. He was given the 2004 Conservation Award from the Association of Zoological Horticulture and in 2006 a Horticulture Certificate of Acknowledgement from the Garden Club of America. He is on the Board of the Heliconia Society International and has attended conferences in Thailand and Australia in the last five years.

David wishes more people were aware that one of Hawai`i’s most valuable resources is the diverse germplasm lodged in our four major documented plant collections. Many endangered exotics which have been brought into Hawai`i over the past 70 years could never be recollected and are nearly extinct in their places of origin. While the protection of our endangered endemic plants is paramount, we also have a responsibility to the rest of the world to repatriate some of these rarest exotics under our temporary care. There needs to be more dialogue between Hawai`i gardens. Inventories should be compared, and the rarest plants need to be propagated and shared. To that end, David hopes for the restoration of the Hawai`i Association of Botanical Gardens.


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