Hot Tropicals

These are heady days in the changing world of Maui flower farming.

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Story by Paul Wood | Photography by Bob Bangerter

maui tropical flowersFashions change. So do car styles and hit songs. But plants? They’ve all been discovered already, right? Not so, especially not in the realm of tropical cut flowers. New discoveries have Haiku grower David Brown hopping with excitement.

After twenty-five years developing his family’s wholesale nursery on Maui’s rural north shore—gradually converting twenty-three acres of depleted pineapple fields into a controlled riot of foliage—David feels he’s closing in on the goal: to grow such a diversity of floral types that he will have year-round production in a full palette of colors, all of them knockouts.

maui flower farmWhen we visited, he kept dashing back from the field, wielding yet another floral surprise, each one flaming or dangling from a stem as hefty as Gandalf’s walking stick. He produced a hairy brown heliconia called She Kong. Then a solid-green specimen named Emerald Forest. The new Painter’s Palette goes through four color changes from bud to maturity. A deep-maroon costus known as Kiss of Death looked like a weapon whittled out of glass. The Ten-Day rostrata, a massive pendulous heliconia in candy hues, has made a big leap in cut-flower longevity over the previously popular Five-Day rostrata. Then David elicited gasps by brandishing a newly discovered torch ginger that’s pure white, the size of a softball, and formed of infolding porcelain-fine wavelike bracts. All these flowers and more were peaking in the middle of winter, typically a dormant time for any farm.

David’s excitement, his willingness to work nonstop—with the help of his parents, who broke ground for this nursery, Maui Tropicals & Foliage—all this energy must come together if they are to compete with floriculture worldwide. Maui is more expensive in every way than tropical regions in Asia, Africa, or South America.

maui tropical flowersAnd Maui’s a small fry, fewer than 300 acres in flower production, says Teena Rasmussen, who directs the county’s Office of Economic Development. “Floriculture is declining here because of tremendous pressure from the global market.” Orchid growers’ products have been swamped by a tide out of Thailand. “It’s horrible to lose any of our farms,” she says. “Flowers and Hawaii go together. We have the most vibrant colors on the planet, thanks to our sunlight and perfect growing conditions.” Teena should know. For three generations, her family’s Paradise Flower Farms has grown protea and other tropicals on the slopes of Haleakala.

 

Carver Wilson’s company, Maui Floral, has been growing and selling proteas and other flowers in Kula for nearly forty years. “The market is greater than ever,” he says, “but international production is bigger than ever. Our work is very difficult, incredibly expensive, and we’ve all been through a lot of kicks to the shins. We’re never going to be low-cost producers. But Maui has a special place in the marketplace. It’s the quality of the flowers, the colors, the fact that our varieties grow so well here. And they arrive so fresh.”

He says this having just returned from the airport on Friday afternoon. “We picked the flowers yesterday. They’ll be ready for the Dutch auction Monday morning. The Dutch complain they have to pay more for Maui. But they know we’re the cream; we send types they won’t find elsewhere.”

Every Island flower farmer will tell you that the University of Hawaii deserves a lot of credit for the strength of the local industry. For about half a century now, the university’s botanists and horticulturists have been scouting for, breeding, hybridizing, field-testing, and holding patents on plant varieties that give Maui growers a leg up in the global game.

The university’s new material—also the discoveries of botanical scouts who explore the rainforests of Asia and the tropical Americas—will end up in test beds at, for example, the Brown family’s nursery in Haiku. Most of those experiments (about 75 percent, says David) succeed and flow out to the public. From the Browns’ farm, cut flowers go either to Island retailers and designers or (some 30 percent) via FedEx to markets on the U.S. Mainland. Perhaps beyond. There’s no one precise way to do flowers out of Maui. These flower farms are more like rock bands than like factories. Each has found its own way to survive.

“This is a rough business,” says David Brown’s dad, Dave Senior, without a whiff of self-pity. He’s sitting in the open-walled barn they use as a packing plant and main office, the jungle on every side and the daily Haiku rain spattering and tap-dancing on the corrugated roof over his head. “This business is all trial and error,” he says with a wry smile. “We’re still trying and still erroring.”

 

What the old man doesn’t mention, though he means it, is the deep excitement of being around the plants. We’re not dealing with rose bushes in formal ranks, all drip-watered and pesticided. Nor with flimsy mums cajoled into brief pompoms of pleasure. These are flowers you can weigh on your bathroom scale, blooms that burst from the earth like trees, no need for pampering, ready for a vase life three times that of a rose, loveable in a spirit that borders on passion.

There are all sorts of tropical plants, of course, but the beauties David Brown was celebrating fall under the general terms “heliconia” and “ginger.” These are fleshy (not woody) plants that sprout from thick horizontal roots or rhizomes that allow the plants to spread vigorously without setting seed. The true flowers of this group are mostly obscure, tucked inside vivid clusters of shell-shaped bracts, those specialized leaves that get all the attention. Plants are propagated mainly by root divisions rather than by seed. (Most of the blooms the Browns grow are pollinated in their countries of origin by bat or by hummingbird species, none of which have followed them to Maui.) So when new varieties get introduced, they usually derive from wild discoveries rather than artificial hybridization.

The heliconias all belong to a single genus (Heliconia) with over 250 species that evolved in the tropical Americas. They’re known for their massive “lobster claw”-style bracts, mostly in reds and oranges. The term “ginger”—as a farmer (rather than a botanist) uses it—covers a slew of genera and several families. The early Polynesian settlers in the Islands brought two kinds of ginger with them. They used olena, otherwise known as turmeric, medicinally and to dye  (barkcloth). They used awapuhi, or shampoo ginger, to perfume kapa, to add flavor in the imu (earth oven), and, yes, to clean and scent their hair.

Aside from those, all other gingers and all heliconia came to the Islands after Western contact. They all require the same kind of care when cut and placed in a vase—very little. A big vase and lots of water. Cut 3/4 inch off the end of the stem, and do that again any time the stems are out of the water for longer than thirty minutes. Keep out of sunlight and drafts. Do not refrigerate. Don’t use preservatives. If you’re concerned about algae or mosquito larvae because the water will be standing for days, add a splash of bleach.

Prepare to stare.

Maui Tropicals and Foliage
http://www.mauitropicalsandfoliage.com | 808.572.9600

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