Exotic Orchids on the Island of Hawai’i

Exotic Orchids on the Island of Hawai'i
Cymbidium orchids at Orchid People of Hawai’i’s nursery, in Waimea

Orchids. Exotic, romantic, beautiful. In a graceful arc over a single spike, strung in a lei or pinned on prom gowns around the world, orchids add a touch of fantasy and sensuality to any special occasion.

Orchids are prehistoric. Scientists using various methods estimate their age between 20 and 100 million years. Today, there are over 28,000 species—with about 150 new species being discovered each year—and more than 100,000 hybrid varieties, making Orchidaceae one of the most diverse plant families on earth. They bloom in every imaginable color, in shapes and patterns that look like angels, butterflies, birds, monkeys, and even Bob Marley. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica and in every environment except glacial.

Orchids Arrive in Hawai’i

In Hawai‘i, the orchid’s story begins well before the first Polynesian seafarers arrived by canoe. There’s no way to know how many different orchids they may have found, but today, three endemic orchid species survive. They are the Hawai‘i Jewel Orchid (Anoectochilus sandvicensis), ‘Awapuhi-‘o-Kanaloa Orchid (Liparis hawaiensis), and the Hawai‘i Bog Orchid (Platanthera holochila). These orchids are rare and somewhat shy, dressed in greens and earthtones, as opposed to their showy multicolored descendants like the large, ruffly Cattleyas.

Hawaiian Bog Orchid
Hawaiian Bog Orchid

How the first non-native orchid came to Hawai‘i is the subject of many stories. Some say that Chinese laborers brought orchid plants with them in the late 19th Century, when they came to work on sugar cane plantations. Another credits a Mr. Harold Jeffs, who imported orchids from the Philippines (Dendrobiums) and South America (Cattleya). About the same time, Takami Kodama arrived from Japan, and began to create an orchid nursery on O‘ahu.

Mr. Takumi Kono (see below), as quoted in a 1945 Hawaii Tribune-Herald story, says, “The history of orchid growing in Hilo goes back to Herbert Shipman who was Hilo’s first orchid grower. His first plant acquired in 1907 was a Phalaenoppsis schillerana which is still among his vast collection of orchids. Next came the late Dr. E. Yoshimura who influenced many people to take up orchid growing.”

Orchids Become a Business in Hawai’i

Orchid collecting and cultivation, already a popular passion in Europe, quickly grew into a very chic hobby for the well-to-do and members of the monarchy. In Hilo, a new business enterprise was underway, with orchid blossoms selling for 35 cents each. In 1938, the Hilo Orchid Society was established as a club for orchid afficionados to exchange ideas, and the Honolulu Orchid Society began the following year.

In 1955, Hilo’s Takumi Kono was invited to the First World Orchid Conference in St. Louis, to give a presentation. From there he traveled to three mainland orchid shows, winning a total of 11 awards. * His Vanda Sanderana no. 7 received the highest score ever given by the American Orchid Society.

Two years later, the Second World Orchid Conference came to Honolulu’s Reef Hotel on Waikīkī Beach. Over 1,000 registrants and 15,000 orchid lovers attended the event, which included 17 different sessions with 75 presenters, and 1,838 orchid plants in 163 exhibits. Hawai‘i had arrived, now firmly established as an authority and a resource for some of the most desirable orchids on the planet.

In 1967, Hilo Orchid Society built a monument to its orchid pride on Manono Street, an open-air landscaped garden called the Orchidarium Hawaii (unfortunately now gone). The site featured a year-round orchid show with rotating displays, lectures, presentation of the latest hybrids, and more. It hosted the monthly American Orchid Society awards for the Island of Hawai‘i. By this time orchid farms were flourishing, especially on the east side of Hawai‘i Island, as a full floriculture industry had stepped up to become an important part of the economy.

Akatsuka Orchid Gardens
Akatsuka Orchid Gardens

Orchid Nurseries and Retailers

One of the best known orchid retailers in Hawai‘i, Akatsuka Orchid Gardens began in 1974, when Moriyasu Akatsuka came to the Big Island from Japan. He and his brother had worked on the family orchid farm, and teamed up to buy a parcel of land in Volcano, and started growing Cattleyas. As the years went by, they cultivated numerous technicolor varieties, many of them award-winners. In the 80s, they opened an 8,000-square-foot showroom and retail store, now a must-stop for visitors on the way to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Today, Akatsuka Orchid Gardens showcases over 500 different varieties of orchid and other plants, as Mori’s son continues the family tradition.

On the west side of the Big Island, in the town of Waimea, you’ll find Orchid People of Hawaiʻi. Owners/operators Bob Harris and Jennifer Snyder started their cymbidium orchid nursery in 2005, and specialize in cut flowers and potted. A visit to their nursery is a science lesson with a lot of amazing color, a real treat for the eyes. Follow the Orchid People Facebook page for up to date information and gorgeous photos of their specialty cymbidium orchids.

Orchid People of Hawai'i
Jennifer Snyder of Orchid People of Hawai’i

The 2018 lava flow, followed quickly by the pandemic shut-down, had and will have lasting effects on the orchid industry in Hawai’i, the Big Island in particular. That said, orchids are one of Hawaii’s top 20 commodities, according to the Department of Agriculture. In 2021, potted orchids brought in almost $12 million, with cut flowers likely about the same.

Business is business, but here in Hawai‘i, growing orchids is more about the aloha. Orchids are everywhere, in the backyard gardens of residential Hilo and Hāmākua, in shade houses all over the Puna District, and greenhouses in Waimea. In between, the tall, singular Bamboo Orchid grows wild along the roadside. There’s a lot to love.

Orchid Societies and Shows on the Big Island

There are two main Big Island orchid clubs, the Hilo Orchid Society and the Kona Orchid Society. These allow commercial growers and hobbyists plenty of opportunities to get together and learn from each other, and to host annual shows, with juried competitions, plant and equipment sales and a lot of networking. The Kona Orchid Society Show, held on Mother’s Day weekend at the Old Airport Park, also includes craft and food vendors and other specialty plant sales. The annual Hilo Orchid Society Show is held the last weekend in July, at the Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium. Admission is $6 for adults, kids under 17 free.

A Paphiopedilum at the Kona Orchid Society
A Paphiopedilum at the Kona Orchid Society

The beautiful orchid is easy to love, and it’s not that difficult to grow. We hope you’ll give orchid growing a try at your Hawai‘i Island home, but watch out; it’s addictive. We’ve heard orchid lovers say “the worst thing you can do to a friend is give them one orchid.”

* This writer wanted to called Mr. Kono the “Ikua Purdy of Orchids,” comparing his surprise victory to that of the Rough Riders, paniolo champs of the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days. But that’s not this story.

Do Orchids Grow in Hawaii? And How!” a U.H. Thesis by Dr. T. David Woo and Wallace K. Nakamoto
HiloOrchidSociety.org and KonaOrchidSociety.org