Issue 14.5: October/November 2011

Radiant Symmetry

Story by Janice Crowl

Photos by Jack Wolford


David Shiigi roams the shade house at Bromeliads Hawaii in Pana‘ewa, movingly gingerly among the benches so as not to brush the foliage—some of his plants are one-of-a-kind hybrids worth thousands of dollars. Thousands of bromeliads glisten with rainwater, radiating hues of jade, crimson, white, violet, gold, copper, shell pink and myriad other shades. David is a world-class bromeliad hybridizer, one of those unfortunate souls bitten by what collectors call “the bromeliad bug,” a syndrome that transforms otherwise rational people into plant fanatics. There are a lot of them—that is, both bromeliads and their worshippers —in Hawai‘i, a place that’s become an Eden for members of the family Bromeliaceae. It’s a rare Hawai‘i yard that doesn’t have at least one of the more than three thousand species growing.



   The addiction to collecting bromeliads goes back at le

David Shiigi and his daughter Royanne tend bromeliads in the shade house of Bromeliads Hawaii on the Big Island, one of the state's largest exporters of ornamental bromeliads.
ast to 1493, when Christopher Columbus introduced Europe to its first bromeliad: the pineapple, the only brome­liad to produce edible fruit. No one’s sure when exactly the first bromeliad reached Hawai‘i, but there is little doubt that it too was a pineapple. While pineapple has become an icon of the Islands, it, like all bromeliads, isn’t native: It’s indigenous to South America. (Hawaiian for pineapple is “hala kahiki,” meaning “foreign fruit.”)


 David still recalls the days when pine-apple was second only to sugar cane in Hawai‘i’s agricultural economy. “Back in the ’70s I worked for the biggest bromeliad nursery in the state: Dole and Libby pineapple cannery. Do you know what a pineapple cannery smells like? I remember thinking, ‘After this job I don’t wanna see another stinking pineapple in my life!’ But now I’m growing hundreds of thousands of them as ornamentals.” These days it’s cheaper to grow pineapple elsewhere, and Hawai‘i’s plantations have dwindled. But diversified agriculture—including the ornamental plant industry—has expanded. Easy-to-grow bromeliads are among the most popular tropical plants mass-produced for local hotels, landscapers and home gardeners as well as for export to the US Mainland and international markets, and David’s company is one of the largest in the state doing so.


 David and his wife, Sherlette, grew up in families with deep roots in Hawai‘i’s plantation and whaling eras. They met as art majors at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and after graduation their love of color and symmetry bonded them to the beauty of bromeliads. But love, like brome-liads, can sometimes be thorny.


 “We almost broke up because of bro­meliads,” says Sherlette. In the ’70s David grew bromeliads as a hobby … a serious hobby. He sang and played guitar to his plants. He lay in bed at night silently begging his plants to grow. Sherlette wanted to help. “One day when he went back into the house, I stayed in the green-house and watered them. I didn’t know I was bruising the leaves as I was moving around,” Sherlette says. David was furious and Sherlette went home in tears. “My mom thought he was crazy,” laughs Sherlette. Luckily for collectors, they patched things up—otherwise today there would be no Neoregelia ‘David and Sherlette,’ a hybrid named in their honor by Tropiflora, a pro­ducer of collector bromeliads in Florida.


 These days David concentrates on hy­bridizing while daughter Royanne handles the business. David’s specialties are Neoregelia and Vriesea hybrids, like the common Neoregelia carolinae with its rosette of strappy green leaves and scarlet cup, and Vriesea splendens, or Flaming Sword, a houseplant with a fiery-red, blade-like flower spike. But such commonplace bromies don’t charm hybridizers like David, whose passion is in the extraordinary. Recently he started hybridizing Dyckia: succulent, cactus-like bromeliads with thorns so wickedly sharp he uses long tweezers to pull weeds out of the pots.


 Hybridizing bromeliads requires metic-ulous record-keeping and patience—lots of patience. David chooses a plant with desirable traits and waits for it to flower. He collects the pollen, then waits for the right moment to hand-pollinate the flowers, which doesn’t always happen at convenient times. Night-blooming species require the work to begin after sundown, and some plants produce pollen when the female parts are not yet open, so he’ll freeze the pollen and wait some more. If pollination is successful, the plant develops seeds, which David germinates and grows. If he’s lucky the hybrid is stunningly beautiful. But even if it is, the waiting game might have just begun: Growing a hybrid to maturity can take up to twenty years, depending on the species.



Bromeliads have evolved a range of traits that help them thrive in a variety of conditions from arid deserts to misty mountaintops. This makes bromeliads a boon for plant lovers with busy lifestyles: low maintenance, low light and soil requirements and long-lasting, colorful blooms. Some species are epiphytic, meaning they don’t need soil. These “air plants” get most of their nutrition and moisture from the air; their roots function primarily as anchors that allow them to grow high in tree canopies. Terrestrial bromeliads grow in soil, and some even flourish in sandy or salty soil, which makes them desirable in Hawai‘i’s beach­side gardens. Many varieties, so-called “tank” bromeliads, have leaves arranged in a tight rosette with a cup in the center that traps water, which sustains the plant during drought.


 One common resident in local gardens is an ancient and unlikely-looking species, the silver-gray Tillandsia usneoides, also known as Spanish Moss on the Mainland, Pele’s Hair or Dole’s Beard in Hawai‘i. (The moniker might miff the testy goddess, though: Pele’s Hair is indigenous to the southern United States.) Kamehameha’s Paddle, Tillandsia cyanea, has bright pink and purple oar-shaped flowers and grass-like leaves. Few gardeners in Hawai‘i can say they’ve seen the Queen of the Andes, Puya raimondii, an endangered South American bromeliad that can grow as tall as a two-story house and take up to 150 years before it blooms. But there are other giant types here, and when they bloom they cause a stir among enthusiasts. Most spectacular is the imperial bromeliad Alcantarea imperialis, which is about four feet across, three feet high and fifteen to twenty years old before it sends up a flow-ering stalk up to eight feet tall. These show-stoppers are in O‘ahu’s public collections at Lyon Arboretum, Foster Botanical Garden and Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden.


 Serious US bromeliad collectors owe a debt to the “Father of Bromeliads,” Mulford B. Foster (1888-1978), who intro-duced and hybridized many species and in the 1950s co-founded the Bromeliad Society, now known as Bromeliad Society International. Members of the affiliated Hawaii Bromeliad Society have been active for about three decades; they meet the last Saturday of the month at Lyon Arboretum in Manoa, which has an impressive bromeliad garden. HBS members share information on diseases, potting media or the idiosyncrasies of a particular genus, followed by an auction where members sell surplus offshoots, or “pups”—a good way to get plants that at most local nurseries can be surprisingly expensive. Members get bromeliads for as little as a dollar or two because although they grow slowly, they generally reproduce year-round—no matter what. “The only way to get rid of them is to put them in the middle of the road and run over them a few times,” says longtime HBS member Tom Stuart.


 Beautiful and versatile as they are, there is a dark side to the bromeliad story in Hawai‘i. They flourish in Hawai‘i’s tropical climate and support introduced fauna. Between layers of the leaves and in the cup from which the inflorescences emerge, tiny ecosystems teem with insects, amphibians and reptiles. These organisms  might be native to the habitats where bromeliads originated, but some species are invasive—such as mosquitoes, frogs (including the noisy coquí) and lizards. (Some gardeners concerned about mos­quito-borne diseases flush stagnant water out of their plants or use insecticidal soap to kill larvae.) While the vast majority of bromeliads are in cultivated gardens, a few Guzmania and Tillandsia species have escaped into Hawai‘i’s native forests near residential areas, festooning the branches of native ‘ohi‘a trees where they form dense mats that put significant weight on the branches and prevent photosynthesis.


 Bromeliads, specifically pineapple, are among the reasons you don’t see humming-birds in Hawai‘i. In their native Central and South America, hummingbirds are common pollinators of bromeliads. But pollination, while good for the plants, isn’t good for the plantation. It produces seeds, which can reduce the quality of the pineapple fruit. Although the pineapple industry has declined, importation of hummingbirds continues to be prohibited by the state Department of Agriculture.



Watering time: David Shiigi treats his bromeliads with a tenderness only true plant people understand--singing to them, playing slack key guitar to them and sharing libations with them at the end of a workday.
Bromeliad fans often start out as orchid lovers. “I have over three hundred bromeliads collected over thirty years, in a greenhouse with orchids,” says HBS member Lynette Wageman. “Each plant is different. They’re different sizes and shapes, and the coloration is fantastic, the blooms vibrant. I keep them in pots so I can move them around, indoors and outdoors. And they’re easy to grow—I can go away on a trip for two weeks and they’re fine.”


 For the truly afflicted bromeliad col­lector, travel might include an adventure to see—what else?—more bromeliads. “When I was first collecting in my 20s, I went to Veracruz and Oaxaca, Mexico, with world-famous hybridizer Chester Skotak,” says David. “We went to Pico de Orizaba [Mexico’s tallest mountain] at around eight thousand feet, just to find bromeliads. When I saw my first bromeliad in the wild, I went crazy, charging up the tree for a Tillandsia lucida—I couldn’t believe it. I was like a kid in a candy store, but I couldn’t reach it. In those days it was easier; today it’s more dangerous. Some collectors were murdered recently.”


 These days David stays closer to home, where seeing something rare and exciting is as safe and as close as his backyard. And the world comes to him for the thrill. “People have come from Colombia, Brazil, Belgium, Japan and Thailand to see my greatest creation, and they’ve never seen anything like it,” says David. His variegated Werauhia sanguinolenta ‘Memoria Edna Shiigi’ (named for his mother) is one of the rarest bromeliads in the world. Out of 1,500 seedlings he propagated only one that was variegated. In twenty years the plant has produced only two pups. “I never sold them and never will. I’ve been offered thousands of dollars for them, but to me they’re priceless. It’s as if my mom in heaven is saying, ‘You’re not going to make money off me,’” says David. On the other hand, his Guzmania lingulata ‘Puna Gold’ hybrid—the first yellow lingulata ever bred in the world—has been highly successful in mass cultivation.


 The secrets to David’s success? Persist-ence, passion and expertise, of course. And maybe a little extra love: “I still play music for my plants,” he says. “At the end of the day I sit in the nursery, play classical and slack key, have a glass of red wine. If I don’t play guitar, I have classical and Hawaiian music radio stations on. I think they still like it.”