Story by Janice Crowl
Photo by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams
The sweet-scented maile vine is entwined with Island culture. It’s important in hula— Pele’s sister Laka, the hula goddess, is also the deity of maile. In ancient times it was a medicine as well as a peace offering potent enough to avert war. Today it’s a popular lei plant — long, deep-green maile lei are draped over the shoulders of men (mainly) at weddings, proms and graduations. At around $30 a pop, though, you want to save the maile lei for really important occasions.
Lei in waiting: Maile grows at Mahi'ai 'ihi, the first local farm to cultivate the aromatic lei plant on a commercial scale. Wild maile is uncommon in Hawai'i from over-harvesting; Mahi'ai 'Ihi hopes to ease the pressure on wild maile and compete with imports from the Cook Islands and Tonga.
Why so pricey? For one thing, maile grows in hard-to-reach places, like dense mountain forests. For another, its popularity has led to overharvesting, so it’s rare in the wild. In ancient times it was collected, never cultivated. Today a few Hawaiian families are growing maile in backyard nurseries for friends, families, mom-and-pop lei stands, but it’s a cottage industry at best. And so most of the maile sold in Hawai‘i — some say as much as 95 percent —is from the Cook Islands and Tonga. That soon may change. Now, thanks to an award-winning business plan by the Ali‘i Pauahi Hawaiian Civic Club, Mahi‘ai ‘Ihi (“Sacred Farm”) is busily grooming thousands of Hawaiian maile vines.
Mahi‘ai ‘Ihi is the first local farm to cultivate maile on a large scale—currently 25,000 plants in a 33,000-plus-square-foot shade house in Wailea, on the Hamakua Coast. The Civic Club started Mahi‘ai ‘Ihi in September 2009 after winning the University of Hawai‘i Shidler business plan competition and raising funds from more than twenty community partners, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
The farm is experimenting with different types, such as maile lau li‘i (a short-leaved variety from Kaua‘i), maile with big leaves, long leaves, different fragrances. “Some kupuna (elders) say the one from Kapapala is better; some say the one in ‘Aiea Heights smells better,” says director Keali‘i Lum.
As for the maile cottage industry, Lum says there’s room—and demand—enough for everyone. “We’re not in the business to put people out of business,” he says. “We’re into sharing. We have families and civic club members who come up here, and we tell them what we know. We’re learning, too, because large-scale maile cultivation has never been done. We cannot own what our küpuna have been doing for thousands of years.”
The first harvest will be this December, just in time for the holiday season.