by Paul Devlin Wood
This is the story of the unlikely conquest of the Hawaiian Islands by a family of flimsy flowering plants—the crafty, infinitely changeable and seductive orchids. Lacking timber, speed or even a halfway decent root system, orchids thrive by means of one keen strategy: They enlist the help of others—flies, bugs, beetles, moths, birds and the best assistants of all, humans.
photos by Linny Morris Cunningham
Humans feed orchids, fondle and photograph their flowers, love them more passionately than any wasp. Humans help orchids reproduce, cross-breeding them to create new varieties. Let these numbers prove the point: Before humans got involved, orchids had managed to create 24,000 versions of themselves, making them one of the world’s most successful plant families; today, thanks to humans, that ever-rising number has more than tripled.
Those humans who helped orchids conquer Hawaii were just as unlikely to pull it off. Most bore Japanese names, some Chinese, some Korean. Most were members of that generation of Asians in Hawaii who faced a daunting social challenge—the transition from near-slavery in the plantation camps to positions of security, prestige and power in the Islands. Common sense would have kept such people far away from orchid plants. In their day—the 1940s and ’50s—orchids were so expensive, so wickedly hard to breed and so fundamentally weird that only rich people could afford to fool with them. But Hawaii’s poor defied practicality to serve the orchids, and the orchids rewarded them with more and more beautiful flowers, the basis for a lucrative floriculture industry.
Scientists would call the relationship of orchid and grower "symbiotic," or mutually helpful: The humans used the plants for their own enjoyment and profit; the plants used the humans to take root in Hawaii—the one earthly heaven they could never quite reach on their own.
Hawaii’s importance in the larger orchid-growing world really began in 1954, when a small delegation of Island enthusiasts traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, for the first-ever World Orchid Conference. Before then, the true heartland of orchid enthusiasm was Europe, where the great capitals had been receiving the booty of global exploration for 200 years. Royalty and wealthy collectors had innumerable species of orchids scooped out of American and Asian wilderness and commissioned elaborate conservatories, or "crystal palaces," to house their collections. Orchidmania gripped England during the Victorian age. But the two World Wars changed all that. With little heating fuel available, many great collections perished. Lucky orchids were shipped to safer locations, and gradually the center of orchid culture shifted from Europe to the United States, especially to California and Florida—so St. Louis made a good central point for a world conference. It also provided access to a few upstart hobbyists from the far-flung U.S. territory of Hawaii.
In St. Louis, the upstarts offered to host the second conference, to be held three years later. The orchidists of the world agreed and, in 1957, descended on Honolulu.
The fellow selected to be show chairman for this unprecedented Island gathering was a thirty-something Honolulu man, Ben Kodama. Ben had inherited a money-making orchid collection from his father Takami Kodama, an insurance agent turned orchidophile. The elder Kodama grew the first potted orchids that were affordable to Hawaii’s working class—seedlings in two-inch pots that sold for fifty cents apiece at the Kress Store. Takami was the Johnny Appleseed of Hawaii’s orchid culture.