The Mysterious Galaxy Garden of Paleaku

A Cosmic Garden Created by an Artist

The Galaxy Garden by Jon Lomberg, as seen from a distance. Carolyn Collins Petersen, used by permission.

There's a place on the Big Island of Hawai'i that will delight even the most avid gardener: the Galaxy Garden of Paleaku. It an astronomically accurate representation of the Milky Way Galaxy, right down to the spiral arms and black hole at its heart.

This gorgeous creation is the brainchild of space artist Jon Lomberg (who created artwork for the first Cosmos TV series in the 1980s). He designed and built this mysterious, hidden gem of a garden to bring astronomy and island beauty together in one place. The Big Island, if you don't know, is home to some of the world's most advanced observatories (such as the Gemini Observatory), high atop Maunakea. Next to that mountain is the active volcano Mauna Loa, and its busy child volcano, Kileaua. It has been erupting almost continually since 1983, and has had periods of long eruptions going back at least 300,000 years. 

The Galaxy Garden is south of Kona, Hawai'i, and it's literally a miniature version of our home galaxy—the Milky Way—recreated in tropical plants and a lava walk. The garden is part of the Paleaku Peace Gardens Sanctuary. John Lomberg said he was motivated to create the garden by the sheer scale of our own galaxy. "A garden you could walk through would be a perfect place to let visitors experience the scale of the Milky Way," he said, pointing out that hundreds of school children visit to learn a little bit more about the stellar city we call home. 

The actual garden is 100 feet wide, which makes the scale about a thousand light-years per foot. The plants that make it up are there to represent objects in our galaxy. The spiral arms are planted with gold dust crotons, which have spotted leaves. Those spots represent the stars, dust and gas in the Milky Way. Gorgeous hibiscus flowers stand in for the many nebulae in our galaxy where stars form. Areas of star death are represented by vinca flowers for planetary nebulae (the leftovers of a sunlike star, which teaches us how our Sun will die) and the expanding remnants of supernova explosions (the deaths of massive stars, explosions that occur in all galaxies). 

A Spiral Garden of Galactic Beauty

A fountain stands in for the event horizon around our galaxy's central supermassive black hole. Carolyn Collins Petersen, used by permission.

The center of the garden is the core of the Milky Way. Tall-standing dracaena trees and red bromeliads indicate the placement of globular star clusters that whizz around the core. The core itself is represented by a little fountain in the shape of a funnel that suggests the black hole at our galaxy’s core, plus its event horizon and jet activity. The black hole, called Sagittarius A* by astronomers, is about 26,000 light-years away from Earth. It's hidden from our view by clouds of gas and dust, so most of what we know about it comes from radio astronomy and infrared studies). 

A walk through the Galaxy Garden is a miniaturized trip across 100,000 light-years of space. Once you stroll around and through the galaxy, you get a very visceral feel for the structure of the Milky Way (and other spiral galaxies). And, as you walk, you might find some items that indicate our own place in it. We live on one of the outer spiral arms and sure enough, in about the right place in the Galaxy Garden, there are some small earrings that represent the brightest stars closest to the Sun. Finding them is a bit tough, which tells us something about how our own star is nothing more one of millions hidden in a spiral arm. 

One of the more intriguing features of the Galaxy Garden is something you have to see from a distance. It's on a slope with a slight swell to it. There's a good astronomical reason why Jon Lomberg designed it this way: it echoes the warp that our galaxy has, probably due to interactions with other galaxies in the past.

The Galaxy Garden is a hidden gem, something that savvy tourists like to brag about after their trips. Gardeners will love this place and could pick up a few ideas to try on astronomy-themed gardens back home! If you want to learn more about this place from the artist himself, visit his website to find out more about admission, donations, and the background of the peace garden itself.