Native Intelligence: Moloka‘i

The Fragrance Farm

Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photos by PF Bentley..

With plastic laundry baskets strapped to their waists, a group of pickers walk the rows of head-high trees on Dick Wheeler’s Moloka‘i Plumeria Farm, expertly plucking the just-opened blooms and dropping them into the bins.

The flowers’ journey of a thousand miles has begun—one that carries a touch of home across the Pacific for special occasions like graduations, weddings and hula competitions. “I’ve had numerous reports of aunties and tūtūs [grandparents] breaking down in tears as soon as they open the box and that scent fills the room,” Wheeler says. Work at the farm must be done swiftly, because not only does mailing the fragile flowers ($.12 per bloom or $12 a lei) require precision timing, but also because the FedEx truck comes at 10:30 in the morning. “Nobody here works full time,” jokes Wheeler, who’s been running the former apiary-turned-flower farm with his wife, Aome, for three decades.

A beekeeper by trade, Wheeler knew nothing about Hawai‘i’s iconic flower before moving to Moloka‘i from North Dakota to run the Moloka‘i Honey Company in 1984. But the forty small plumeria trees growing right outside the barn sparked a big idea. Wheeler spent five years planting his ten acres with 95 percent “classic yellow” plumeria and 5 percent with vibrant pinks and reds. At first the farm sold locally to the tourist industry and supplied two Lāna‘i hotels with 150 plumeria lei daily, buying every flower he could pick.

But then came the purple orchids from Thailand, putting many local plumeria farms out of business. “They were cheap, exotic and last a long time,” Wheeler says. “But they aren’t Hawai‘i.” So with a little ingenuity and the right timing, Wheeler found a Mainland niche for his plumeria, shipping boxfuls of blooms, one hundred to ten thousand at a time. Of course, there are thousands of fallen flowers that never make it into the box. After a decade of research, Wheeler has recently found a way to turn these unshippable blooms into shippable form: an organic fragrance that matches the plumeria’s unique floral scent.

While plumeria haven’t made him rich, they have made Wheeler and many others happy. “It’s really cool to be able to export aloha and send a piece of Hawai‘i to the Mainland,” he says.