Issue 15.2: April/May 2012

The Greenest Show on Earth

Story by George Tanabe

Photos by Elyse Butler


“So there we were in our Boston hotel room with five kinds of orchids, anthuriums and silver bromeliads from Maui,” says Bertie Lee. “We put them in ice buckets, and we turned the room temperature down to sixty degrees.” Lee had been invited along with collaborator Dorothy Nitta, a nationally certified judge for the Garden Club of Honolulu, to the Boston exhibition of the World Association of Flower Arrangers in June 2011. There they competed against some of the finest flower artists from around the world, creating living sculptures in several challenging and abstract categories: “Writing,” “Magic,” “Electricity,” “Mirage,” “Synergy.” “One category,” Lee remembers, “was called ‘Zipper.’ Now how are you going to use plant materials to suggest a zipper?” But Nitta and Lee, with their Hawai‘i flora flown in from five thousand miles away, pulled it off. The pair won an honorary award from the most avant-garde of floral associations in the “Sphere” category for their suspended sculpture of orchids, anthuriums and protea arranged in a threefoot- diameter bubble.


For Lee floral design is a form of installation art created out of living materials, ephemeral and impossible to duplicate. The artistry on display at the World Association exhibition reflected the same degree of creativity, dedication and skill that other visual arts demand, though the title of “artist” often eludes floral designers, who are sometimes misrepresented as the prim matrons of the art world. But the members of the Garden Club of Honolulu are artists nevertheless, gifted with the color sense of painters, the spatial perception of sculptors, the dexterity of jewelers, the imagination of storytellers and the sensitivity of poets.


Take for example club member Pat Wassel, who transforms ordinary plants into exquisite jewelry. Her creations aren’t for sale, and she makes only one piece every three years, which is how often the GCH hosts one of its major flower shows at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. For the 2009 show Wassel gilded a palm seed stem with gold nail polish, bent it into a circle and fixed dried ‘ohi‘a lehua flowers where the ends met. On the petals she glued a burst of tiny black mustard seeds and attached pearly white peppercorns along the stem. The challenge was not just to make something beautiful, but to create a piece that reflected the show’s theme, “Na Pua Ali‘i, Reflections on Hawai‘i’s Royal Legacy.” One entry was patterned after the diamond barrette Princess Lili‘uokalani purchased on her trip to England to attend the coronation of Queen Victoria. Wassel’s palm and peppercorn necklace instantly evokes the Hawaiian kingdom of the nineteenth century; it won Best in Show.


The Garden Club of Honolulu was founded in 1930 as a branch of the Garden Club of America; in its early days, members were mostly garden fanciers, genteel ladies who supervised their yardmen. Wassel and the other 130 or so members no longer attend meetings wearing the fancy hats and white gloves of their predecessors. They love to get their hands dirty, and they’re no amateurs: Every candidate for membership must be an accomplished gardener who is nominated by three club members. Then they’re on probation for a year during which they must take classes at Lyon Arboretum to learn horticulture and flower arranging. The club’s activities, too, have expanded beyond the manicured grounds of wealthy estates and into the community: They award student scholarships, create internships, promote conservation efforts and restore gardens at historic sites. The club planted the gardens at Washington Place with the very species Queen Lili‘uokalani had planted—they had the list in her own handwriting. They’ve coordinated with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to plant the Le‘ahi Millennium Peace Garden on the slopes of Diamond Head. Their handiwork is on display in the Sullivan Chinese Garden at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. They even teach gardening to prison inmates.


Such projects keep GCH members busy in the off years, but in an on year like 2012, it’s all about The Show.


Gardeners from different
regions have different perspectives, but they all love Hawai‘i for its striking, sculptural flora. Of the nine Garden Club of America Major Flower Shows held nationally in 2012, Honolulu’s will command premier attention; hundreds of Mainland members will be attending, including seventy certified judges. Lee has long experience as a floral designer and judge; she was invited to the Philadelphia show in March 2011 as both a judge and contestant. (Its theme, she notes without surprise, was “Hawai‘i.”) The GCH show is one not to miss, she says: “I know this is kind of bragging, but I’ve seen a lot of shows, and Honolulu’s is a wonderful show.”


Club members choose a theme that provides focus while allowing room for interpretation. For the upcoming Honolulu show, the club decided on “Echoes of Rainbows.” A risky theme, says Tanya Alston, GCH president. “The rainbow can be trite,” she says. “And it can also be interpreted negatively,” adds Paulette Stone, co-chair of the horticulture division for the 2012 show. But Alston and Stone, longtime “girlfriends gardening,” also see the exciting possibilities in the rainbow theme. Take for instance one of the horticultural categories called “Pot of Gold.” Entrants must use yellow Oncidium orchids to suggest, yes, a pot of leprechaun gold. For “Reflections” a single specimen must be exhibited with the parent plant from which it was propagated to show, as Alston explains, the mother-and-child relationship. “‘Eat Your Greens,’” Alston continues, “features a collection of edible plants and/or edible flowers displayed on a dining table.” Other categories will challenge designers to communicate concepts: “Watercolors” (small water gardens), “Promise” (endangered native loulu palm), “Jewel Box” (plants in troughs). Each designer must work with the natural limits of the particular plants and then tease out something greater. Stone likens it to raising children.


For botanical jewelry, “Facets” includes bracelets and brooches, while “Raindrops” features pendant necklaces and earrings. Photographers must create “Illusions” (landscape through an arch) or “Pathways” toward a rainbow. Flower designers need to meet the challenge of evoking a “Rain Shower” or use a light source in “Illumination” or create an arrangement immersed in “Water.” And what could one possibly do with “Prisms”?


Kaui Philpotts, publicity chair of the show, was thinking about what to do for an exhibit when Ele Potts, known for her brilliant designs and willingness to mentor, suggested she enter the “Prisms” category. “Ele told me to sign up for this, so I did,” says Philpotts. “After I turned in my papers, I read the requirements and found out it has to be suspended from the ceiling! And it has to be viewed from four sides! I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve never done anything like this before!’”


For the Honolulu show, Bertie Lee will attempt a “Double Rainbow.” How, she’s not sure yet, but she’ll discover it in process, she says. “I’ll go through six different concepts before settling on something.” For now she’s considering “a sculptural thing with no vessel, with two arch-like forms using plant material.” What those plants will be she doesn’t yet know, but of one thing she’s certain: They’ll be tropicals. “They’re vivid and they last a long time— you have to keep your plants alive and fresh for at least three days. If they don’t last, your winnings can be taken away,” which is the reason bougainvillea, colorful and plentiful as it is, won’t be part of her rainbow; it doesn’t last. “Maybe pincushions, which are in the protea family,” she says, “or orchids. I’m not really sure yet.”


Club member Jean Abbott
was shopping one day at Ala Moana when a young clerk stopped her. “‘Hi, auntie,’ she said. ‘You used to teach classes at WCCC, and I just want to tell you how much that meant to me.’” Abbot was used to seeing the girl in a blue prison uniform and wasn’t sure how to respond. “I didn’t know what her co-workers knew about her past,” says Abbott, “so I just gave her a big hug and told her how happy I was that she had stopped me.” There is something healing about working in the dirt, Abbott says, something that teaches lessons for life.


Funded by a $25,000 grant from the GCA, Honolulu club members offer classes for inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Windward O‘ahu, where the inmates tend a lei garden, manage a greenhouse, cultivate taro and grow breadfruit. Abbott, who’s been volunteering since 2006, has seen the therapeutic effects of gardening on some of the women, like the one who said that gardening helped her to remember the smell of the mountains. Another woman felt that the patience and tenderness she learned from nurturing plants would make her a better mother.


The prison program works not just through “hort” but with flowers as well, though Abbott admits she was initially skeptical about bringing in an ikebana (Japanese flower-arranging) instructor. Abbott listened as the soft-spoken teacher explained stem treatments and angles of placement step by step. “I’m just thinking, ‘This is not going to fly,’” says Abbott. “I was sure we were going to lose the girls in five minutes.” But they were on the edges of their seats, carefully following the instructions. “I was shocked,” she says.


The women requested permission to use their arrangements for their Thanksgiving dinner, and the new warden, having just transferred from the men’s correctional facility in Halawa, was puzzled by the request. “Years later,” Abbott says, “he told me that there he was, sitting in his office on his second day wondering where in the world were they going to get flower arrangements. When told that they already had them, he realized that dealing with women was going to be different from men.” The inmates, it seems, were not the only ones learning from flowers.   


The Garden Club of Honolulu’s Major Flower Show will be held May 11 to 13, 2012, at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Visit for more information.