Issue 7.4: August/September 2004

The Producers

by Julia Steele
photos by Linny Morris Cunningham

The Nii family created this
hibiscus, which Glenn Nii
says his daughter named
Taylor, "after a character
on a soap opera."

Every morning Jill Coryell walks into her backyard and finds flowers that have never before appeared on the earth, blossoms drenched in color. Sometimes they’re as small as a coin, sometimes as large as a plate. If she is particularly taken with the brand-new blooms, Jill names them. One morning there was a small, lush brownish-purple bloom. That one became The Little Prince, after the aviator who loved his rose bush. Once there was a full red flower with fringes of white. That became Kalei’s Valentine, named for Jill’s granddaughter. There was a double-petaled bloom of pinks and mauves that became the Monica Mahelona in homage to Jill’s "very, very wonderful friend."

On the morning that I arrive at Jill’s home in Waialua, she has a new flower in a pot just by her doorstep. It’s a synthesis of pinks and purples, vibrant like a florid sunset or a neon tie-dye. "This one hasn’t told me its name yet," says Jill, pausing affectionately to inspect it before leading me inside, where we find two more exquisite blooms.

In fact, the flowers are everywhere: By her own estimation, Jill has created some 5,000 unique blooms. The flower she works with is the hibiscus, stalwart of the tropics, Hawaii’s state flower and the bloom you see behind the ear of Pualani in the Hawaiian Airlines logo (take a look at your drink napkin). Hibiscus comes from the mallow family, and, though you’d never know it to look at it, it’s related to okra and cotton. Today, there are thousands of varieties of hibiscus producing blossoms in as many shades: When you envision a garden of them, think fashion runway, paint store, candy shop or other places where color runs amuck. And it’s not just the color that varies: Petals can be straight or ruffled, stamens can be long or short, flowers can be flat or full, bloom diameters can be two inches or a foot.

Hibiscus "hybridizing," the process wherein new flowers are created, has become a global phenomenon. From the Bayou to Botany Bay, flower lovers with a touch of the mad scientist are creating original blooms by cross-pollinating, or hybridizing, hibiscus plants. Basically, the process involves picking two different flowers and "matchmaking" by rubbing the pollen of each flower on the other’s stamen. After the flowers drop off the plants, seed is collected from the "ovaries," located where the flower meets the stem; the seed is planted and nurtured until there is a new bush and, finally, a new flower.

Jill has been hybridizing hibiscus for five years now. Her "lab" is a small plot of land in the North Shore ahupuaa of Mokuleia; it sits on a fertile plain backed by the Waianae mountain range and Jill hardly needs to tell me that "Mokuleia means land of abundance.’" She seems right at home on this generous land—a gracious, genial woman, she’s been a flight attendant for thirty-seven years, majored in Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii and has had a passion for gardening all her life. At UH, she studied for two semesters with the grand dame of native plants, Isabella Abbott, an experience, she says, that was "tremendously inspiring."

Jill Coryell's Hiiaka, which
she says she named "after
the goddess Pele's beloved
little sister."

Jill has kept and propagated cuttings and seed from 250 of the 5,000 new plants she’s created. "I never know how they’ll turn out—wonderful or very weird. What I look for mostly is color," she says, when asked why some flowers make the cut and others don’t. "I love color. Also, there’s form and the uniqueness of the flower. And I’m currently working toward introducing scent."

The only naturally occurring scented hibiscus in the world are two white blooms native to Hawaii. Their fragrance, Jill says, is a "sweet, light scent often only there when the flower first opens." Jill points to a bloom on her table that is much smaller than the average hibiscus, pale red, with five thin, delicate petals and a long stamen curving out of its middle. It’s a kokio ulaula, a native red. The other flower on the table is much larger, more dramatic, a double-petaled bloom the color of orange sherbet. It’s a variety Queen Kapiolani grew in her garden. "We’re not sure," says Jill, "if that one’s an early hybrid or if it was introduced."

Jill runs down a quick history of hybridizing in the Islands: first done in 1872 by Archibald Cleghorn, father of Princess Kaiulani and possessor of a bright green thumb. A major craze at the beginning of the twentieth century, lost some steam in the 1920s, revived in the 1950s, tapered off again in the ’60s, still practiced in the Islands by a group of devotees. Then she invites me to tour her extensive flower collection.

Jill has 2,000 plants growing at any one time. We visit her small shade house, where seedlings are nurtured, and we walk the long rows of mature hybrids. Jill shows me flowers created by Houston’s Barry Schlueter, Jill’s mentor and regular winner of the American Hibiscus Society’s Hibiscus of the Year. Among his blooms is the Jill Coryell, a flower with a warmth to match its namesake: It runs from a rich red center to pink, gold and purple. We see natives and early hybrids and Jill’s hybrids. In among the many flowers, Jill points out a first-time bloom. "It’s really pretty, a very feminine look, you see"—she holds the petals out for me to touch—"there’s lots of ruffling and tufting.

"Now," Jill says, "let’s have you make a flower." She makes it sound so easy. As I find out, it is. We look around and I spot the wildest hibiscus I’ve ever seen, a funky vibrant creature aflame with neon oranges, pinks, yellows and reds. "This one goes by the catchy name of 16502,’" Jill says with a laugh as she inspects its tag. It is one of her recent creations, unnamed as of yet. We cross it with 1202,’ a smaller orange hybrid that has kokio in its gene pool and carries a scent. I rub the pollens against the stamens and the task is done. "If it’s a great flower with scent, you may just have created Hibiscus of the Year!" Jill tells me with a smile. She places tags on each flower with the date of the cross-pollination. "If that took," she says, "six to eight weeks from now, we’ll have seed."

Glenn Nii

The mother of 16502 is a hibiscus named the Princess Kawananakoa, created by one of Hawaii’s most famous hybridizers, Charles Nii, who has been hybridizing for five decades. Mr. Nii is in his late eighties now, but you can still find him out at his nursery, way in the back of Kamilo Nui Valley. When I arrive to visit, I meet both Mr. Nii and his son, Glenn, also a master hybridizer. The Niis carry well over 400 varieties of hibiscus at their nursery; when I walk in, I see a table filled with the day’s blossoms, some sixty to seventy different flowers. The color and variety is mind-blowing. "Seeing is believing," says Glenn, and though he’s smiling, he’s not kidding.

Glenn tells me about some of the blooms: There is, for example, the Duke Kahanamoku, a glorious flower that radiates out from a pink center to brown, red-orange and yellow. "Of course, you gotta have the Nadine then," he says, pointing out a flower named for Duke’s wife that has a pink center and lavender and pink petals. There is the Nii Magic, a firm, vibrant orange flower; the Hot Flash, which goes from a red center to orange-red petals with mottled golden yellow ("A lot of women say, I gotta have one of those,’" Glenn laughs); the Fifth Dimension, an other-worldly orange-and-purplish blossom; even the Liberace, as outlandish as its namesake, with a deep red center, pink halo, bright yellow petals and a white fringe.

"We have fun," Glenn says as he watches me marvel. He points out one of the most striking blooms of all, the Charles Nii itself. It is firm, large, with color that goes from a red center to silvery purple to pink to yellow. It shares its namesake’s longevity: It is one of the very few hibiscus blooms that will last more than a day. As we admire his flower, Mr. Nii wanders over to share stories of older days: of colleagues’ flowers and annual contests and lobbying to get the hibiscus declared the state flower. I ask him which was his very first hybrid. He can’t remember. I ask Glenn and he can’t remember his first either. There have just been so many, they laugh, as they continue to tell me about other creations: Nuuanu Pali, Lei Aloha, Mountain View, Egg Yolk, La Hiki, the list goes on and on. I listen, continue to marvel at their inventiveness and nature’s ingenuity, think of my first and wonder how the seed is doing in the ovaries of 16502 and 1202.

Jill Coryell sells plants from her home by appointment (call (808) 637-9995 or e-mail and at the Saturday Farmers Market at Kapiolani Community College. To reach the Niis’ nursery, call (808) 395-9959. Well over 100 of the Niis’ hibiscus varieties grow in Paki Park, just behind the Honolulu Zoo.