story by Leslie Lang
photos by MACARIO
Hilo florist Puna Lerma likes to compare leis to hugs. Receiving a lei is like getting a full-body hug from a beloved grandchild, he says, and wearing one is a way of taking the hug with you.
Lerma and business partner Kaipo AhChong bring different strengths to their thriving, seven-year-old flower business, Pua Lane, tucked under a graceful, shady old banyan tree near the hotels on Banyan Drive. Lerma—who danced hula with revered kumu (master) Edith Kanaka‘ole and her halau (troupe) for twenty-two years—brings a strong Native Hawaiian knowledge of traditional plants, and a sense of responsibility about sharing cultural manao (thought) and respecting precious resources. AhChong, who has a degree in horticulture and originally opened the shop as a retail outlet for his tropical-flower farm, handles the business end.
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(left) with Pua Lane's Kaipo AhChong and Puna Lerma.
"At first, all our customers were friends and family," says AhChong. "I knew things were picking up when people I didn’t know started to come in." Local residents still make up the majority of Pua Lane’s customers, and the shop doesn’t advertise except for a weekly spot on an all-Hawaiian-language radio program. Even so, business is lively. AhChong and Lerma always have fresh leis and flowers for sale, but they also take special orders and do arrangements for weddings, funerals and more. Once, Lerma says with a laugh, an entire senior class in Nevada ordered leis for their graduation ceremony, so Pua Lane shipped 500 orchid garlands off to the high desert. Now that’s a lot of hugs.