story by Deborah Gushman
photos by MACARIO
It was a typically schizophrenic winter day here in the high-desert art mecca of Santa Fe: three inches of snow on the ground, brilliant sun in a cloudless blue sky. I was in need of a quick, inspired gift to take to an impromptu birthday party for an artist friend named Alexandra, so, remembering that she loved the Islands, I popped into a local flower store to buy a tropical bouquet.
Pincushion protea at Hualalai Ranch.
Ten minutes and $35 later, I was back on the street with three sprays of tiny white dendrobium orchids and two pale pink anthuriums, wrapped in sparkly tissue paper. I hadn’t been expecting the flowers to be quite so expensive, and as I drove down narrow adobe lanes to Alexandra’s cozy casita, I thought about the marvelous flora of Hawaii, where I lived for twenty blissful years before returning to my Southwestern hometown. I remembered going into tiny greasy-chopstick restaurants in Honolulu and seeing an exquisite arrangement of orchids and anthuriums on every chipped-Formica table. Surely the operators of those modest mom-and-pop restaurants didn’t pay $7 a stem, or even half that, for those lovely blooms.
That was the beginning of my curiosity about the tropical flower industry in Hawaii. While I lived in the Islands, I was perpetually grateful for the presence and affordability of beautiful blossoms, but I never questioned the logistics of where they grew, or how they got to the far ends of the earth. How, for example, does an anthurium end up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, looking as fresh as ... well, a daisy?
I looked on the Internet and found nearly 30,000 places from which I could order Hawaiian flowers, though not at significant savings over what I’d paid for Alexandra’s birthday bouquet. Then I got sidetracked by a website about the fictional detective Nero Wolfe’s penchant for orchids, which led me to a Raymond Chandler site, and that sent me running to the public library to check out Farewell, My Lovely . My curiosity about Hawaiian flora didn’t disappear after that; it just went dormant, like a Big Island volcano between pyrotechnic, landscape-altering eruptions.
Then one day I received an e-mail from a friend in Hawaii. "Remember our old pal Norman Berg, who used to be marketing director of the Marianas Visitors Authority in Saipan?" he wrote. Of course I remembered. Norman Berg—Honolulu-born, Punahou-educated, standout athlete—was one of the more colorful (and voluble) characters I had met during my years of adventuring in Micronesia for Pacifica magazine, and he had always been immensely helpful to me during my research trips to the Northern Marianas: Saipan, Tinian and Rota. "Anyway," the message went on, "Norman is now living in Hilo, and working in the flower-exporting business." Immediately, a 200-watt light bulb burst into bloom above my head.
Two weeks later, I was sitting across from Norman at Café Pesto, a popular lunch spot overlooking the Hilo waterfront. He hadn’t changed a bit in the intervening years. He was still tall, dark, handsome and hyper-articulate, still full of enthusiasm for work and life. As we ate artichoke pizzas and sipped endless refills of homemade lemonade, Norman told me that he had left Saipan because "it was just time to come home," and talked about his exciting new job (official title: Director of Promotions and Public Relations for Floral Resources/Hawaii, Inc.) with kid-in-a-candy-store wonder. "It’s amazing," he said. "I’m surrounded by beauty all day long, and I’m promoting a product that everyone loves."
After lunch, we wandered down the street to Hilo’s lively farmers’ market, where tables were heaped high with staggeringly cheap, locally grown vegetables, exotic fruits (rambutan, starfruit, lychee and more), perfect red tomatoes, avocados the size of grapefruits. "Everything on this table is $1, except for soybeans," read one hand-lettered sign, and I tried not to think about the supermarkets of Santa Fe, where one small papaya will set you back $2.69. Exquisite kiku ("cigar") leis and protea wreaths hung from clotheslines, and sprays of yellow-and-brown oncidium orchids, looking like small flocks of butterflies, were crammed into plastic buckets. The price for an armful of orchids? $2.
Norman Berg in the greenhouse at
Floral Resources, which ships more
than 40,000 anthurium stems each week.
On the way back to the car, we dropped in at textile/ fashion designer Sig Zane’s beautiful store fronting the bay. Many of Zane’s simple, striking motifs are inspired by Big Island flora. "We are fortunate on this island to have so many kinds of flowers, and so many seasons," Zane told us. "Flowers have their own energy, and I try to capture that."
As we drove away from downtown, Norman gave me a crash course in Big Island Floral Business 101. "The figures aren’t yet in for 2002, but commercial growing of flowers and nursery products was an $88 million business in the state of Hawaii in 2001," he said. "It was a record year, and Hawaii County accounted for more than half of the total sales—close to 60 percent, in fact. Anthuriums are still the leading cut flower, but sales of orchids increased by an impressive ten percent, showing how popular these plants are becoming."
We passed several large shopping malls and a smaller development, on a prime corner lot with a gas station and a curiously named convenience store: The Ginger Patch. "It’s called that because this site used to be one huge field of torch ginger," Norman explained. "The old man who owned it still raises ginger, back there." He pointed toward a verdant jungle behind the service station.
Moments later, we arrived at the Kawailani Street headquarters of Floral Resources, which consists of an enormous open-air warehouse and several equally vast, shadecloth-covered greenhouses. Norman went to his office, decorated with vivid posters of the stunning flowers he deals with every day, while I chatted with the company’s affable, self-assured president, Vern Inouye. All around us, from one wall to the other, were buckets of gorgeous anthuriums: not just the traditional reds, but greens, pinks, whites, purples, lavenders, oranges, yellows. Some were solid-colored, others were variegated, like the shadowed obake (ghost) varieties; some were the size of lilies, while others were almost as large as an elephant’s ear.
Vern—a second-generation grower and enthusiast—is a walking encyclopedia of information about the amazing-looking flowers. "Anthuriums were first brought to the Islands around 1870, from Colombia," he told me, then explained that the anthurium’s funnel-shaped "flower" is actually a leaf, and the true flower, or efflorescence, is the tiny bumps on the stamen. The first strains to arrive in Hawai‘i were the familiar Christmas-red, but now there are more than fifty varieties, with many more in development—including several in the very greenhouses we’d passed on the way in.
"We specialize in the ‘tulip’ variety of anthuriums," Vern said, referring to the cup-shaped leaves. (The traditional anthuriums are more heart-shaped.) "We try to develop unique and exotic cultivars that will set us aside from the competition. It’s a costly investment, but worth it." Floral Resources ships 40,000 to 60,000 stems (i.e., flowers and foliage) every week, including as many as 15,000 to Japan.
After he told me that, for him, the flower business is a total "upper," I asked Vern where he saw himself going from here. "Golfing," he replied with a laugh.