Throughout the last century the ti plant, both physically and conceptually, has undergone a drastic transformation in these Islands. The many uses of the la‘i have been supplanted by the conveniences of the parka, rubber slippers and the sleeping bag. At the same time, new ti varieties introduced to the Islands from other tropical climates have allowed the plant to flourish under a different banner: its diversity of colors and shapes. Its leaves, once seen only in monochrome green, now come in almost any color, and their once traditional oval shape is now as plain as a crew cut.
Few people are as knowledgeable about these botanical émigrés as 82-year-old Tsuneo Iwami, who thirty years ago started collecting ti plants because, he recalls, “I don’t want a yard with just green. I want color!” The avuncular retired technical illustrator has been a plant historian for decades, and he also served as the Hawai‘i representative for the International Cordyline Society from 1995 to 2003 (ti’s scientific name is Cordyline terminalis).
As far as Iwami can tell, the first of the newer ti varieties to arrive in the Islands were brought by Harold Lyon, a researcher for the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association who was sent to the Caribbean in the late 1920s to study farming methods. Lyon brought back several ti that, unlike the Hawaiian ki, were fertile and whose seeds produced plants of vastly differing appearance. These imports were the genetic forebears of many of the beautifully colored cultivars that caught the Hawai‘i public’s attention in the 1950s. “Some of these old varieties are still popular today,” Iwami says, citing the red- and greenstreaked Hilo Rainbow and the stubby magenta-splashed Kaupo Beauty, both of which grow in his garden.
Flipping through his folder of archived newspapers, Iwami talks of other ti pioneers. In a 1952 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, horticulturalist Collin Potter is proclaimed godfather of the first orangestriped ti after breeding the highly soughtafter Johnny Cummins. A year later, in an article titled “Ti Time,” prominent Maori physician and anthropologist Sir Peter Buck is credited with introducing a ti of green, red and yellow from his homeland. (Buck, whose writings on Polynesia are legendary, is doubly famous in the ti world for a popular red ti from Tahiti that is named after him.)
Iwami has tried to keep track of the ever-growing number of varieties of ti on Hawai‘i’s garden scene, filling scrapbooks with decades’ worth of nursery inventories along with correspondence with breeders, collectors and botanists. But even for someone as meticulous as Iwami, keeping up has become an almost impossible task. He remembers when fellow ti enthusiast Carin Procter tried to catalog them all. Laughing ruefully like a man who has himself tried and failed, he says, “I heard she quit.”
As Iwami strolls through his garden, he is full of memories. He points to one ti that has thin leggy leaves streaked with white; he calls it Ua Pou. A Chinese friend from Tahiti gave it to him as part of a plant exchange in the early 1990s. “He said it’s from the Marquesas Islands,” he recalls. “It’s a strong plant, grows fast.” Another variety stands mightily in front of his house. The trunk is the size of a birch tree; its enormous thick leaves droop under their own weight. “It’s called the Green Giant,” Iwami says with a smile.
After a late lunch and as the sun dips toward the horizon, Iwami and I are looking out to the backyard from the large windows of his dining room. The graying bachelor says that at his age he can barely keep up with the ti; they require so much water, he says, and to make things worse, his area has hit a dry spell. The plants, he laments, should be bigger and more robust. Yet not caring for them any more would be unthinkable. “A part of me is in each of them,” he confides. “They’re like my children. They’re my legacy.”