HAWAI‘I ISLAND—In 2022 Hawai‘i’s floriculture industry was ranked as one of the top 10 in the nation according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. However, Hawai‘i’s producers of flowers and foliage have faced unexpected challenges in recent years due to the 2018 Kīlauea eruption that destroyed commercial production facilities in Kapoho and the lack of business due to the COVID pandemic. 

Second-generation nurseryman Eric Tanouye of Green Point Nurseries, who is also president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association (HFNA), says the fallout from the pandemic “showed us how dependent we are on the hospitality industry.” He adds 50 percent of industry revenue comes from export, bringing in outside dollars into Hawai‘i’s economy.

The latest state figures from NASS report the state’s $81.6 million floriculture industry suffered a five percent decrease from 2018 to 2020. It pointed out nurseries “were hit especially hard” that were tied to tourism and other hospitality venues that were prohibited from having large gatherings.

Add these types of unique challenges to the industry’s ever-present hurdles of land costs, off-island competition, insect control, an aging workforce and climate change, and the future could seem daunting to the state’s 291 producers of fresh flowers and foliage, garden plants and propagative materials used in floral arrangements.

According to HFNA figures, the lion’s share of these producers are on Hawai‘i Island. Tanouye says the nexus of them are in south Hilo or upper and lower Puna due to ideal weather conditions of mild temperatures with tradewinds bringing in precipitation from the Pacific. 

While the business from Hawai‘i’s hospitality sector is important for floriculture producers, Tanouye claims its important for island residents to support local growers by buying their products. He points out that island-grown plants are suited for island landscapes and suggests using local flowers in home and party arrangements and purchasing lei to give as gifts. 

“When possible, buy flowers grown in Hawai‘i first to support our local growers,” he emphasizes. “Our floral products also promote Hawai‘i’s sense of place, which indirectly helps our visitor industry.”

Ainahua Florals in Waimea depends on nearby growers to provide the flowers for their lei and floral arrangements and also grows some of its own product.

“Quality of the flower is number one important to us so we want our freshest, Waimea-grown product as possible,” says Kelsi Mercado, creative director and manager of Ainahua’s lei department. “Packing and shipping takes its toll on fresh flowers; they can bruise and wilt and then we have to pluck the damaged petals off the flowers.”

Also important to the Hawaiian-owned company is availability of product. “We want to be able to pick up flowers and sew them in a lei within a few hours,” continues Mercado, who adds sewing the lei with string and needle, called lei kui, is the most popular method used. “We do a single style where we sew right through the middle of the bloom, and a rope or double style, where we sew on the side of the bloom in a circle pattern. The double style uses triple the flowers and results in a thicker lei.”

Ainahua relies on a Waimea farm for its “tiny baby roses” as they are the right size, hardy and can easily be mixed with other blossoms. “If we didn’t have this farm we’d have to import them from as far as South America or California and unfortunately, their roses aren’t the size or in the bud stage we prefer,” notes Mercado. “Our local source is a lei-making family and they know what we need.” 

Lei product grown by Ainahua includes ‘ākulikuli, a succulent also known as ice plant. “It’s hard to sew as the stems are tiny so we stitch in a half-moon formation, flat on one side and round on the other.” Mercado adds local tūtū say all young girls would learn how to make this lei to give to their fathers. The lei would be worn on the hats of paniolo “to help hold them down” while riding. 

“This lei is known as the Waimea Lei,” she adds. ‘Ākulikuli grows in different places but doesn’t necessarily bloom unless in a higher elevation with sunny days and really cool nights.” 

Other local product Ainahua grows for lei includes lehua, ti leaf, bird of paradise, hydrangea, protea and dahlias. The company locally sources ginger, maile, pakalana, pīkake, plumeria, tuberose, kukui, lantern ‘ilima and orchids “as these products are most readily available either here in Waimea or on Hawai‘i Island.” The bulk of Ainahau’s lei business is custom orders. 

AhLan’s Lei Stand at Hilo International Airport was founded by the late Rebecca TimSing in 1945. She began selling lei displayed on her arms to greet passengers as they disembarked from arriving ships at Hilo Pier. Named after Rebecca’s only daughter AhLan, today the stand is operated by granddaughter Lana Haasenritter and has been open for five generations.

“Grandma and mom trained and taught us from a very young age to pick, prepare and grow flowers for lei with care,” Haasenritter shares. “After we mastered this, we made and sold lei.” She adds using complicated styles and creativity came with time. “This is part of our lives as we carry on this tradition today.”

Offering grab and go, plus custom, fresh flower lei, AhLan’s sources flowers from local farms. Their popular lei include maile, lei po‘o (head lei), puakenikeni, red or pink ginger with Song of India foliage and crown flower. Lei availability varies throughout the year due to seasonality of product. 

“Giving a lei is like giving someone flowers,” she notes. “A lei expresses love, friendship, celebration, honor, welcome and goodbye. It is a symbol of aloha because every day is perfect for a flower lei.”

Ka‘iulani Blankenfeld, director of Hawaiian culture at Fairmont Orchid, Hawai‘i, points out that lei making, wearing and gifting is an integral part of Hawaiian culture and presenting a lei is one of the most intimate interactions in Hawai‘i. 

Saying lei are the number one gift made, purchased and presented in Hawai‘i, she adds, “Whether gifting, wearing or placing a lei somewhere special, the love and intentions that come with the lei is the greater significance and gift.”

According to Blankenfeld, every facet of Hawaiian culture—including the making, gifting and wearing of lei— must continue to be practiced and perpetuated for this place to truly be Hawai‘i. With May Day annually on May 1, she encourages all to make, wear and give a lei.

Sponsored by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA), this Island of Hawai‘i Visitor Bureau (IHVB) communication initiative was created tosupport our Hawai‘i Island residents, farmers and hospitality industry employees, and to mālama ku‘u home (care for our beloved home).@hawaii_island_dmap  @hawaiihta