Story by Janice Crowl
It’s 1971, and “recession gardens” are sprouting up in backyards, community plots, even rooftops in response to tight food budgets and increasing urbanization. On the penthouse lanai of one Waikiki condo, potted bromeliads, agaves, succulents, flowering shrubs and rare variegated dracaenas surround a snowy-haired Filipino man stylishly dressed in short sleeves and tie. Fortunato Teho, Hawai‘i’s renowned garden writer and broadcaster, smiles broadly for the photographer of the Manila Chronicle, friendly but formal in the lush setting. Teho is growing ornamentals mostly, but he displays an impressive container-grown tangerine tree with five ripe fruits each weighing over a pound. It’s a vision of gardening success, the kind that has thousands of local gardeners reading Teho’s weekly newspaper gardening columns and tuning in to his daily TV and radio programs. Forty years ago Fortunato Teho was a guru of the green thumb whose name was synonymous with the science and art of gardening in Hawai‘i.
Teho compiled his newspaper columns to publish his first book in 1971, Plants of Hawaii: how to grow them; it sold more than fifty thousand copies. For a kid born in the Philippines during an outbreak of cholera in 1908, mere survival much less success was fortunate if not miraculous. Teho’s mother, Benita, had eight children and lost all but one to disease; she named the survivor Fortunato. Within three years the Teho family emigrated to Hawai‘i to provide greater opportunities for their son and settled in Kapa‘a, Kaua‘i. Young Fortunato was precocious and bright; he excelled in academics, winning a scholarship to Mid-Pacific Institute, a private college prep school on O‘ahu, where he graduated at 15 years old. He pursued studies in agricultural sugar technology, and at 19 he became the first Filipino to graduate from the University of Hawai‘i.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Teho worked for various sugar plantations as an agriculturalist and luna, the Hawaiian word for supervisor, and as a public relations specialist. In 1948 he left the sugar business and for the next twenty-five years served as a public information specialist for the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture extension service. He wrote articles for several local dailies and began broadcasting radio shows in the 1940s. With the advent of television in the Islands in the 1950s, he became the star of his own shows, including one called Talking to Plants, and as a local celebrity he made numerous personal appearances, leveraging his fame to further the interests of Filipinos in Hawai‘i.
In 1945 the civic-minded Teho went to Washington, DC, for three months as a member of the first Hawai‘i Filipino Delegation, with the purpose of attaining citizenship for Filipinos in the United States. As chairman of the delegation’s Committee on Education, Teho led the push for Filipino naturalization, increasing Filipino immigration and relief for the Philippines, which had been devastated during the war. He tasted the fruits of that labor in 1948 when he became the first Filipino in Hawai‘i to become a naturalized US citizen.
By the time Teho retired, he was a well-known public figure who could boast a lifetime of awards and achievements. Yet despite earning the spotlight many times over, he was exceptionally soft-spoken, humble and good-humored. And his body of work was, by the turn of the century, almost entirely forgotten except among the Islands’ aging plant lovers. And forgotten he might have remained had it not been for his descendants, who first learned of his many accomplishments decades after his death in 1986.