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<b>Fountains of Youth</b><br>Sisters Puanani (in blue) and Leilani (in red) Alama may both be in their 80s but they continue to teach hula in their Kaimuki studio.<br>Photo by Elyse Butler
Vol. 16, no. 2
April/May 2013


Green Shui 

Story by Aaron Kandell
Photo by James Anshutz


You’ve seen it before:
a gorgeous model posing on a pristine beach, back arched, hair wind-swept and wild. But something’s different in this picture. The bikini top is … alive?


Mad scientists of botany Talia Portner and Michelle O’Brien aren’t kidding around when it comes to their ambitious goal of “bringing a new green to Hawai‘i’s floral scene,” as their motto boasts. In just over a year since launching their floral design company, Zorbella, these lifelong friends have quite literally grown a company from the ground up. “We each put $100 in, and that’s how it started,” says Talia. “We just wanted to do something fun together,” adds Michelle. “We had no idea we’d end up being artists, fashion designers and masons.”


 In a small studio tucked deep in Manoa valley, the giggling duo wear fluorescent pink gas masks as they mix cement into a circular mold. A small platoon of finished pots is already lined up, awaiting a final paint finish. Beyond, rows of succulents of varying shapes and varieties lie stacked on shelves, angled to the sun. “Every single pot is its own unique piece,” says Michelle. “We handcraft each one.”        


In fact, customization is core to Zorbella’s model. Sourcing plants from a network of local backyard gardeners, the pair designs floral arrangements to tailor-fit the needs and aesthetics of its diverse clientele. To date the two have decorated everything from a major office building to a yoga studio, weddings, fashion shows, high-end restaurants, even an elementary school. Their products can range from something as small as a single jade Crassula nestled in a palm-size pot to giant air plant globes. Recently they’ve branched into the world of modern art, featuring “living installments” at town restaurant and the Pegge Hopper Gallery. “We can adapt to create anything,” says Michelle. “What we don’t have are boundaries of what Zorbella is … and hopefully we never will.” 


Which brings us back to that bikini top—the kind of thing Eve might have designed in the Garden of Eden: woven from pheasant feathers and studded with tiny succulents. “We chose succulents because they are the most architectural and also the most sustainable plants,” says Michelle. “If you take care of them, our plants can last forty to fifty years.”