In 1853, Queen Kalama leased 4.6 acres of land to William Hillebrand, a botanist as well as a physician; he and his wife built a home. The magnificent trees which now tower over this area were planted by him. In 1884, the property was sold Thomas R. Foster and his wife Mary E. Foster. In 1919, Foster leased two-acres to the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association for its experiment station, under the direction of Dr. Harold L. Lyon, a botanist and plant pathologist.
Lyon proceeded to build on the work of plant conservation and landscape architecture which Dr. Hillebrand and Mrs. Foster had initiated. By 1925, his plant nursery had produced over a million trees, most of them exceptional varieties which were not grown elsewhere. Upon Mrs. Foster’s death in 1930, the 5.5 acre site was bequeathed to the City and County of Honolulu as a public garden and was opened to the public on November 30, 1931, with Lyon as its first director.